Last month, an average of 4 percent of Americans reported being sick with the flu on any given day, according to a Gallup report released January 8. Because December isn’t even peak flu month — reports tend to be their highest in January and February — pollsters say this just might become “the worst flu season in Gallup’s records.” (January 2013 saw an all-time high of 4.7 percent.)
What makes this year’s flu so terrible?
There are two potential reasons for the high reports, experts say. First, it’s possible that people are complaining more because they’re being hit harder than usual: H3N2 — the strain of the virus that’s been most prevalent this year — is known to be quite brutal. “H3N2 tends to make people sicker,” says Jeffrey Shaman, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. That means people are more likely to report cold and flu symptoms: The Gallup survey is based on how serious people think their symptoms are. “It’s no gold standard,” Shaman says of that methodology. “If you really wanted to know what was going on with the flu [virus], you’d have to randomly swab a thousand people.”
Another explanation for the higher-than-normal reporting, according to a fact sheet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that the flu vaccine isn’t going to work as well as it did last year. That’s because viruses are constantly mutating, part of a process known as “antigenic drift.” This year, the variant of H3N2 — the virus that sucks extra hard for those unlucky enough to be infected — has “drifted” from that found in the flu vaccine. So even though the vaccine can still deliver some antibodies to fight this slightly different version of H3N2, it won’t be as effective as it is when the vaccine and the virus are a more exact match.
But don’t bother making that your excuse to avoid needles this year. “The vaccine…is still more effective than not getting a vaccine at all,” says Dr. Melissa Stockwell, the medical director for the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Immunization Registry. She adds that there is still time, as flu season can theoretically extend from October through to May. “People are saying, oh, it’s January, it’s too late to get vaccinated,” she adds. “That’s not true.”
One might think that living in close quarters with your neighbors and taking the slithering snake of disease known as the subway every day makes New York a veritable petri dish. But Shaman and Stockwell both say that the city also has a few points in its favor. “Every few blocks there’s a pharmacy where you can get the flu vaccine,” says Stockwell.
Shaman advises New Yorkers to pay attention to the city’s many public service announcements and poster campaigns reminding people to sneeze into their elbows and wash their hands. “We really do have a great public health department,” he says.
While the flu this year is leaving many in agony, Gallup also notes that the common cold isn’t exactly lying dormant, either: In December, 11.6 percent of Americans said they had a cold on any given day. That’s the biggest number of people complaining of cold symptoms since 2008.