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Flu Fighters

Infectious Disease Expert Explains the Science of Flu

By Bemnet Faris

Person getting a band-aid on arm after a vaccine

Photo by iStock

This year, our vaccines are well targeted against the newest strain of the flu virus, said Dr. Donald Milton, a professor in the School of Public Health.

You can’t miss the reminders around campus, on the radio and at your pharmacy: “Flu shots available.” 

But maybe you haven’t heeded the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation to get the vaccination. If you’re still on the fence about whether to get one this year, Dr. Donald Milton, a professor in the School of Public Health, may change your mind. 

The expert on respiratory infections is continuing his study to help pinpoint the critical stage between the time you start to get sick and when you start spreading a virus, and in the meantime, offered insight into the 2019–20 flu season and the nature of the flu virus itself.

What do we need to know about this flu season?
The good news is that this year, our vaccines are well targeted against the newest strain of the virus, Milton said. Still, concerns about the severity of this year’s flu season stem from looking at clues from the Southern Hemisphere; the illness that hit during the winter there—from June to August—could soon be headed north.

“Last winter, Australia had a pretty bad bout of H3N2 influenza A, and there’s a concern that it could foreshadow a bad year here,” Milton said. 

Why do we need a flu shot every year?
The flu virus is hard-wired to mutate—either through errors in RNA replication or by swapping gene segments with other strains inside humans and animals. “There are thousands of different varieties of flu out there just in the wild,” Milton said.

The new vaccines that come out every year do their best to keep up, but you’re only protected if you get the latest shot. “One of the big problems with the flu is that it just mutates so fast,” Milton said. “It’s really more of an amorphous thing.”

Why do some people feel sick after getting the flu shot?
Unless you get tested, you can’t know what it is that’s making you sick after getting the flu shot. “There are hundreds of other respiratory viruses,” Milton said. “You can get a fever and feel pretty sick with a lot of those viruses too.”

And even if you do feel some side effects, the flu shot “is protecting you against getting really bad flu,” Milton said. 

What if I don’t get a flu shot?
Then quite simply, you’re more likely to catch the flu, which can be serious. “I’ve seen people lose 20 or 30 pounds and be weak and tired for six months after they’ve had the flu,” Milton said. “It can make the rest of your semester a big drag. So, if getting the shot can protect you against not having it that bad, I think that’s worth something.”

Also, when a large percentage of the population is vaccinated, those who can’t be, including infants or people who are allergic to the vaccine, are indirectly protected. “The best thing we can do to protect the vulnerable among us is to get vaccinated so that we’re less likely to infect them,” Milton said. 

Besides vaccination, how can I make sure I don’t get or spread the flu?
Follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations. “Wash your hands frequently and don’t touch your face when you haven’t washed your hands,” Milton said. 

If you know you’re sick, you can avoid transmitting the flu by essentially isolating yourself. “Don’t go to class when you’re sick or walk around coughing on other people,” Milton said. “Stay out of stuffy, small spaces with sick people.” 

But self-isolation can be hard to do, especially for a college student in the winter who might have a roommate and needs to go to class, work and eat. So getting that flu shot might just be your best bet.

Schools & Departments:

School of Public Health

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