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Amid mild flu season, vaccine protection is low, early CDC data shows

Each year, scientists and pharmaceutical companies create a flu vaccine based on which strain they believe will be circulating in a new season. Because this year's flu season has been so mild, it may be harder for them to figure out which strain of the flu will dominate next season. Flu vaccine manufacturing typically takes place well before the flu season even begins.
Posted at 4:12 PM, Mar 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 17:50:43-05

(WXYZ) — The flu vaccine this season appears to be a poor match, according to early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But despite the low protection, the CDC continues to recommend getting the shot.

It appears that this year’s flu shot is way off target. According to early data from a study of over 3,600 people, the vaccine reduces a person’s chance of getting infected by about 16%. Even the CDC said this rate is considered “not statistically significant.”

So, why is the flu vaccine offering little protection? Well, every February, health experts have to predict which flu strains are most likely to circulate the following season. I can tell you this is not an easy task. The virus is constantly changing. And scientists have to predict on data that lags.

So, if they guess wrong, then the vaccine will be less effective. Unfortunately, that's the case this year. The main strain has been H3N2. It’s known to mutate faster and it can cause more hospitalizations and death.

Having said all that, it’s not all doom and gloom. First, we’ve had another mild flu season for the second year in a row. Cases did start to pick up in the fall, but then never took off. And that’s likely because omicron started spreading fast and furious, so more people took precautions like wearing masks and social distancing.

One other positive point I want to stress is that the flu vaccine can still protect against severe illness. So, while you may get infected, being vaccinated can help prevent serious complications and outcomes. And that’s the main reason why the CDC still recommends people get the flu shot.

There are scientists working on universal vaccines. Both Pfizer and Moderna are developing a vaccine based on the mRNA technology used to create their COVID-19 vaccines. Plus the National Institute of Health along with other groups are also working on a universal flu shot.

The goal of a universal flu shot is to provide at least 75% effectiveness over a one-year period. It would include multiple subtypes of flu. Not just three or four types, which are what our flu vaccine currently protect against.

I think a universal vaccine would be absolutely fantastic. And that’s because a typical flu season can lead to 290,000 to 650,000 global deaths each year. So, I don’t want people to hear this news and be discouraged. While flu vaccines may not always provide high protection against infection, keep in mind that they can protect against serious illness.