It’s that time of year again. The leaves have fallen, the air is crisp, and as I write this, six inches of snow has accumulated in my backyard. For many, the change in seasons is eagerly welcomed after the heat of a long summer. We can finally wear layers again and make soups and cozy up inside with a good book. With all the simple pleasures of a Colorado winter, this time of year also signifies the start of the flu season.
Once fall rolls around and the leaves start changing from green to yellow to red, pharmacies and doctors’ offices begin advertising for flu shots and encouraging us to get our annual vaccinations. Like the shorter days and the colder nights, this is something we have come to expect with the change of the seasons. And while flu shots may not be what we look forward to most about the fall or winter, the ability to prevent and control the impact of a given flu season is nothing short of a public health success.
Flu season is not new for us. In fact, the influenza virus has been circulating the globe for hundreds of years now. Of course, many of us are most familiar with the H1N1 flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have infected 500 million people and famously caused more fatalities than all of World War I.1 Thankfully, after years of research, the isolated influenza virus led to the first inactivated flu vaccine in the 1940s.1 Along with the development of the flu vaccine came the first influenza surveillance system used to anticipate changes in the annual flu virus.2
As we know now, viruses tend to mutate which means vaccines must be adapted to fight new strains of the mutated virus. Today, there are infectious disease epidemiologists across the globe who work entirely on understanding which flu strains are mostly likely to show up during a given flu season. Our annual flu vaccines typically protect against three to four strains of the influenza virus, with the hopes of minimizing infection as much as possible.2 In the early 2000s, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) began recommending that everyone 6 months and older receive an annual flu vaccine.3
I am incredibly thankful for the years of research and scientific discovery that led to a publicly available flu vaccine. For nearly two-thirds of my life, I have been fortunate enough to be able to go to my local pharmacy and get vaccinated. However, I hate to admit that about five years ago I neglected to get my annual flu shot for the very first time. Work was busy, I was traveling a lot, and thus, month after month, I put off getting vaccinated. When March of that year rolled around, I actually thought to myself, “Phew, I made it through flu season without getting sick.” I really felt I was in the clear…. the irony. Later that spring it seemed everyone in my office was coming down with the flu, and because I was unprotected by the flu vaccine that year, I too became very sick. I will spare you the details, but needless to say I was out of work for at least a week only able to stomach chicken broth and juice. You only need to experience that degree of illness once to never want to experience it again.
This year is predicted to be a tough flu season, compounded by the continued presence of other viruses such as RSV and COVID-19. Physicians are encouraging people to get their annual flu vaccinations as we head into the holidays, and what better time to schedule your flu shot than National Influenza Vaccination Week (December 5th through 9th, 2022). We all want to enjoy everything that the winter season has to offer, enjoy time with family and friends and gather around tasty meals with the ones we love. Fortunately, there are steps we can all take to help protect ourselves and our communities from getting the flu. For starters, we can wear masks and stay home when we aren’t feeling well, wash our hands frequently and prioritize getting good rest. And most importantly, we can get the annual flu vaccine, available at most major pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and local health departments. You can bet I have already gotten mine!