Remember – it’s still flu season

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

While there is rightfully much concern about the COVID-19 (aka coronavirus) becoming a pandemic (see Bara Vaida’s excellent tip sheet on covering the virus), let’s not forget we’re in the middle of flu season, another disease that is potentially fatal for older adults. While COVID-19 is deadlier, flu is much more prevalent.

Flu activity is high in the U.S. and expected to continue for weeks, according to CDC’s Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report for the week ending Feb. 15, 2020. You can see a breakout by age groups for Influenza A and B strains here. CDC estimates at least 29 million flu illnesses, 280,000 hospitalizations and 16,000 deaths from flu so far this season.

Due to age-related changes in their immune systems, people 65 years and older may not respond as well to vaccination as younger people. Although immune responses may be lower in the elderly, studies have consistently found that flu vaccine has been effective in reducing the chance of medical visits and hospitalizations associated with flu.

Older adults are at high risk of developing serious complications from flu compared with young, healthy adults. Our immune defenses become weaker with age, and many older people have other serious co-morbid conditions like heart disease, which can increase vulnerability to flu-related complications. While flu seasons can vary in severity, during most seasons, it’s those 65 and older who bear the brunt of the flu and it’s complications. In recent years, for example, CDC estimates 70% to 85% of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in the older population and this group comprises 50% to 70% of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations.

Older people can get the “regular” vaccine or one of two vaccines designed specifically for people 65 and older: high dose Fluzone  is three-component (trivalent) inactivated flu vaccine, (Sanofi Pasteur Inc) specifically for people 65 and older. It contains four times the antigen of standard-dose inactivated influenza vaccines. The higher dose of antigen in the vaccine is intended to give older people a better immune response, and therefore, better protection against flu.

Another option is Fluad, a standard-dose, three-component (trivalent) inactivated flu vaccine, (Sequeris) which contains an adjuvant. It’s designed specifically for people 65 years and older. Like most flu vaccines, it’s manufactured using an egg-based process; it is formulated with the adjuvant MF59.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first adjuvanted quadrivalent influenza vaccine for adults 65 years and older. Fluad Quadrivalent, uses the same MF59 adjuvant as the Fluad vaccine, but with an additional strain included. Fluad and Fluad Quadrivalent are currently the only adjuvanted seasonal influenza vaccines approved for this age group in the U.S. One recent study shows that enhanced flu vaccines provided better protection to those 65 and older compared with standard vaccines.

Journalists: How high is flu activity in your community? You may want to reach out to your local or state health department for updated data on hospitalizations, complications or mortality. The CDC also updates their state activity map weekly.

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