The flu virus is a smart one.
Doctors around the world monitor it constantly, tracking its progress, mutations and forms of attack.
Vaccines are developed to neutralize the threat, but some strains slip through the cracks. So every year between September and March, the flu virus comes for the kill.
And if it catches you, it bites hard.
“The flu is no small deal,” said Dr. Sanford Melmed, who practices internal medicine in Bexley. “It’s not your simple cough or cold, in fact in many cases it’s deadly.”
Melmed said 3,000 to 49,000 people die every year nationwide as a result of the flu. Doctors hope that by widespread distribution of the vaccines, these numbers will decrease.
“You’ll never be able to eliminate the flu altogether,” said Dr. Clinton Hartz, who practices family and sports medicine at Wexner Medical Center’s CarePoint East. “[The vaccine is] ultimately to decrease mortality.”
So far this flu season, it’s working. There has not yet been a flu-related death in Columbus, and Melmed said the number of flu patients he’s seen is on par with other years.
In 2013, 5.9 percent of Columbus’ deaths were attributed to pneumonia or influenza, Hartz said, compared to 6.5 percent of deaths nationally.
Columbus Public Health collects data from health care locations across the city, recording the numbers of flu patients seen each week and what strain they contracted. Doctors are able to watch trends unfold weekly, predict which strains will strike hardest the next year and then develop a vaccine.
“It’s very educated the way they do it,” Hartz said.
The shot—recommended for anyone older than six months of age—is available in almost every pharmacy and health care location in Columbus. Once a person is vaccinated, it takes about two weeks to build up immunity to the virus.
“[The vaccine] causes your body to form antibodies to the flu,” Melmed said. “So if the flu bug does enter your body, then you have the antibodies to fight that and kill it.”
David Markel, CVS regional district administrator, said there is only one store—by Nationwide downtown—out of almost 70 CVS locations throughout Columbus that doesn’t offer flu vaccines.
The shot costs $31.99, but most insurance plans cover it.
There are two vaccines patients can choose from this year—one protects against three strains of flu and one covers four. Both vaccines include this year’s most dominant strain, H1N1, or swine flu, which struck hard worldwide in 2009.
The vaccine comes in three forms, said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, an infectious disease specialist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
FluMist, the only live-virus flu vaccine, is developed on egg cultures and sprayed into the nose.
“In children two to five years of age, we know it’s the most effective type of vaccine,” Cunningham said. “It could be because it’s a live virus and gives a little bit more protection.”
The most common shot does not use a live virus. Also grown on egg cultures, developers extract antigens from the virus. When the vaccine is introduced to the body, it recognizes the antigens as the flu and develops antibodies against it, which would then kill the flu virus if infected.
Flublok, the newest form of vaccine, is made without egg cultures. It contains proteins that match three dominant flu strains, which the body recognizes as flu and then develops the correct antibodies.
Patients cannot get the flu from the shot, Melmed said. If a vaccinated person does get the flu, it means it was probably already in their system or it’s a different strain. Some can experience a reaction to the shot.
“An allergic reaction can go from anything to some localized itching and [difficulty] swallowing to actual death,” Melmed said. “Any time you put anything foreign in your body [there’s risk involved].”
But only a percentage of people in the U.S. experience a deadly reaction to the shot annually, he said. Hartz says it’s worth the risk.
“People need to get a flu shot,” Hartz said. “It’s not 100 percent, no vaccine is ever 100 percent, but the benefit definitely outweighs the risk.”