It’s coming on flu season, and that probably means something much different this year, thanks to COVID-19, than it does most years.
The four identified influenza (flu) viruses — A, B, C and D, the first three of which typically infect humans — have been around in some form for a long time. Data on annual epidemics and pandemics really starts in the 16th century, but may have been the cause of an epidemic in China some eight thousand years ago. Hippocrates, the “father of modern medicine,” described flu symptoms about 2,400 years ago.
In an average year, flu kills about 290,000 people worldwide and 36,000 people in the U.S.; the 1918 Spanish Flu (about 500 million worldwide infections and 50 million deaths) was among the worst.
It wasn’t until 1933 that the virus itself was isolated, and a live vaccine quickly followed. We now have a dead vaccine (meaning the flu shot doesn’t actually give you a live infection to fight off anymore) that covers up to four strains — the originally identified A and B strains and a mutation of each.
My child was born during flu season, and the CDC doesn’t recommend anyone under six months old get a vaccine. The people most susceptible to flu, as you might imagine, are the very young and the very old. About a third of people who catch the flu virus are asymptomatic, and asymptomatic carriers can pass it along. So when she was born, we told anybody who wanted to have contact with her to get a flu shot or wait until she could.
The list of people who shouldn’t get a flu shot is pretty short.
If you think you might come into contact with people who could reasonably die from the flu — and again, that’s an average of 36,000 people in the U.S. every year, most of them grandparents and babies — get a flu shot. You can get one at your doctor’s office, at most grocery store pharmacies, and at most national chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreen’s.
Just like masks with COVID-19, it’s as much, or more, for other people as it is for yourself.