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Flu and Measles 2022: More death, no herd immunity

‘This is not the time to get tired of vaccines’

CHICAGO --- With influenza hospitalizations running six weeks ahead of what is normally expected this time of year and flu vaccinations in adults and children down from previous years, December and January could see rising deaths from the flu in the U.S., say Northwestern Medicine infectious disease experts.

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 Dr. Robert Murphy is executive director of the Robert J. Havey, MD Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Murphy: “This is all going in the wrong direction. Not only are we having this bump up in flu cases and hospitalizations, but we are having fewer people get vaccinated. It’s the wrong time to slack off.

“There is vaccine fatigue. People are tired of vaccines. But this is not the time to get tired of them.”

About 5 million fewer Americans have received the flu vaccine compared to the same time last year. And only 8.4 million of eligible Americans have gotten the new COVID-19 vaccine, Murphy said, reflecting the tepid response to vaccines.

“Flu deaths could go way up,” Murphy said. “It’s going to go back to the high ranges of 30,000 to 35,000 deaths this winter.” 

Another concern, Murphy said, is the drop in children’s vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella. Normally the rate of vaccination for this vaccine is 95%, the percentage needed to control measles, because it is so contagious.

“Now it’s down to 89%, which means we no longer have population immunity,” Murphy said. “Measles will increase, and it can be a dangerous disease.”

Ramon Lorenzo Redondo is bioinformatics director of the Center for Pathogen Genomics and Microbial Evolution at Feinberg.

Lorenzo Redondo: “We have barely seen the influenza virus for the last one or two years, due to COVID-19 restrictions. We might have lost some of our previously acquired immunity due to the lack of viral circulation. Additionally, we now have pediatric populations that have never experienced this virus. So, more people could get infected leading to higher influenza-related hospitalizations. That’s why we are in a moment in which flu vaccination is more important than ever, especially for vulnerable populations.

“The good news is the distribution of influenza types hasn’t changed much from the past few years (with Influenza A (H3) being the most dominant). This is important both because increased mortality has been previously associated with significant changes in virus type distribution. More importantly, every season the vaccines are updated to include the most prevalent types observed at the start of the season and, therefore, a lack of significant changes in viral types should be associated with effective protection through vaccination. If people haven’t already been vaccinated, do it now. It will protect you during the peak of flu season. This way, we can hopefully slow down the currently observed high increase rate of hospitalizations.

“COVID-19 at the moment looks like it is becoming less and less severe. Probably as a combination of our developed immunity, mainly due to vaccination, and the characteristics of the virus. Currently, we are observing that for each new peak in cases, there are fewer hospitalizations associated, those being hospitalizations mostly in unvaccinated populations. But we have to stay on the lookout for any new SARS-CoV-2 variant with different characteristics, which could change the trajectory.”