National Influenza Vaccination Week begins this week, marking the annual national efforts to raise awareness of the importance of the flu vaccine as a risk-reducer against the multiple strains of seasonal influenza viruses that affect the country each winter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other aging services agencies are strongly promoting the awareness campaign, noting that the annual flu season is just starting, often peaking in the United States between December and February.
Influenza vaccine awareness is critically important for older adults—between 80-90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths each year are people age 65 or older. Hospitalizations are also a factor: Half to three-quarters of all annual flu-related hospitalizations involve seniors.
People over age 65 are at greater risk for developing influenza than younger adults—and are at far higher risk for complications—because older immune systems don’t work the same way younger ones do, the CDC notes. Older people’s immune systems are less resilient to invading viruses and are often weakened by other chronic conditions and/or medications.
The “group aspect” of community life in assisted living and skilled nursing environments makes them prime fodder for influenza outbreaks. It’s easy for influenza to spread quickly through senior communities, since residents are often gathered in groups. Unvaccinated seniors can have lower resistance to seasonal influenza viruses, and visitors (or any unvaccinated staffers) can unknowingly bring in new virus-risks.
For these reasons, as in previous years, a special version of the flu vaccine has been created for people over 65. Older immune systems simply have a harder time reacting properly to the flu vaccine and making their own antibodies needed to fight off the real flu viruses, the CDC explains. So, the Fluzone High-Dose version provides four times the antigens—the elements that trigger a person’s immune system into action—than the standard flu vaccine, giving older bodies a big head start. “The additional antigen is intended to create a stronger immune response (more antibody) in the person getting the vaccine,” the CDC says.
Influenza activity in the United States has been moderately low so far this season, but as usual, it began to increase over the Thanksgiving holidays. However, peak season is yet to come, and it usually takes at least two weeks for a newly vaccinated person’s body to acknowledge the vaccine’s elements and produce the proper antibodies to fight off the real viruses later, the CDC notes.
Prior to each influenza season, researchers spend months developing the most effective composition of the flu vaccine. However, viruses are living microbes that are constantly changing. Last season, the H3N2 virus mutated after the vaccine had been created, leading to a new strain that was not well controlled by vaccination. This year, the vaccine was updated to include the new strains, and researchers will hope the vaccine will do its job before the next virus mutation.
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