The CDC has issued its first update on the annual flu season, warning that it’s already seen increases in the illness. The news follows statements from health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, that this season is expected to be worse than last year. Meanwhile, new COVID subvariants continue to emerge.
Because of few flu cases during the pandemic, people are less immune, especially young children, says Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at UCSF.
She recommends this is the year to get a flu shot if possible. Kids as young as 6-months-old can get the vaccine.
“What vaccines mainly do is prevent severe disease. So the reason to get a flu vaccine is … to cut the proportion of those who have severe disease. … There are 40,000-50,000 deaths a year from influenza. It is a serious respiratory pathogen. So that's the reason to get vaccinated, knowing that you may have a mild infection.”
The shots are especially important for young children — those under age 8 — because their systems can’t fight the flu as well, she notes.
“They also haven't seen very many colds or RSV (respiratory syncytial virus). They have something that some of us think we have created — an immunity debt — over the last couple of years. What immunity debt means is that the children have seen very little infections, and that can help build their immune system and expand their immune repertoire.”
Meanwhile, two new Omicron variants have appeared: BQ.1 and BQ1.1. Gandhi recommends getting a booster shot to help build immunity against them.
While the shot doesn’t directly protect against the new offshoots, she says it increases cellular immunity by bolstering T and B cells.
“Our antibodies may not work as well against BQ.1. We may get mild infections, but they're good for expanding our cellular immunity to all of these variants. And why is that important? Because our cellular immunity is what prevents severe disease.”