The virus, which dominates in Europe, is associated with a low vaccine effect, warns the European Infection Control Agency.
Although the incidence of influenza cases in Europe is still low, the European Agency for Communicable Disease Control (ECDC) is showing alarming signs. Among other things, an unusual number of cases have been reported in Croatia.
The virus variant that has dominated in the last month is of type A (H3N2). This is a variant that particularly affects the elderly. It is also associated with low vaccine efficacy, ECDC writes in a press release.
– The early detection of A (H3N2) is an indication that the flu season may be serious, although we can not know for sure what the upcoming flu season will look like, says Pasi Penttinen, head of ECDC’s flu program.
The ECDC fears that many cases of influenza and an ongoing covid-19 pandemic could have serious consequences for the elderly and for people with weakened immune systems. An additional burden can be placed on health systems that are already struggling with covid-19.
– It is still important to take the vaccine
There are five different types of flu vaccines offered in Norway this year. All are designed to work against four different viruses, including the virus variant A (H3N2). But even though the vaccines contain this virus variant, the effect against this virus is often low, especially in the elderly.
This is because the elderly have often been exposed to this virus variant many times before. The virus has changed a bit over time, but the body will be able to react as it was before the previous version of the virus.
The elderly and other vulnerable people will still be affected by the vaccine, according to immunologist and vaccine researcher Gunnveig Grødeland at the University of Oslo.
– Even though the vaccines have a reduced effect, they work. They reduce the likelihood that you will become seriously ill if you have taken the vaccine, as opposed to if you have not taken it. It is still important that the elderly take this vaccine, she says.
May cause an unusual number of flu deaths
It was unusual to get those who got the flu last season, probably because the pandemic made people less in touch with each other. Now that people are coming into more contact with each other, one can risk an unusual number of deaths due to the flu.
– It has been said for a long time now that one is afraid of a fairly severe flu season, so this year it is very important that everyone in the risk groups, including everyone over the age of 65, takes the flu vaccine, says Grødeland.
– Should one take some precautions in addition, since it is warned that the vaccine may not have such a good effect against this virus variant?
– In nursing homes, it may make sense for employees to take the vaccine, to reduce the risk of infecting patients. People who visit nursing homes should make sure they are healthy and do not have respiratory infections, she says.
Free vaccine for the elderly
– We do not have enough flu vaccines for the entire population in Norway. But we have enough for those we recommend the vaccine to, says pharmacist Kjersti Margrethe Rydland. She is the program manager for the flu vaccination program at NIPH.
This year, FHI recommends everyone over the age of 65 to take the flu vaccine, including those who do not have a chronic illness. This is because the immune system weakens somewhat over the years. Furthermore, FHI recommends pregnant women in the second and third trimesters, people in risk groups and those who can infect anyone at risk, especially healthcare professionals.
– What if you are healthy and want to take the flu vaccine?
– We do not advise anyone to take the vaccine. But you have to pay for it yourself in contrast to the risk groups who get the flu vaccine for free, says Rydland.
Will soon know what the flu season will be like
Because the flu virus did not circulate in the population of Norway last year, we did not generate immune responses against the flu virus. Then can an influenza virus become milder the following year, but also harder.
– We do not yet know if we have immune responses from 2019 that will help well in this flu season. This will know soon after people start getting the flu here in Norway, says Gunnveig Grødeland.
She says that we are used to dealing with both the flu and virus infection. The special thing this autumn is that we get the flu virus here and at the same time have the coronavirus in Norway.
In week 41, there were so far only a few cases of influenza in Norway, according to the report from FHI. In Europe, there are more cases now.
Many have questions about this year’s flu vaccine. Here you can read Gunnveig Grødeland answers to some of the common questions:
– Does it matter which flu vaccine you take?
– Every year you get a flu vaccine that contains carefully selected viruses. These are the viruses that are expected to circulate and cause epidemics in the current year. This year, Norway has introduced an influenza vaccine that is extra effective in people over 65 years of age. That is very positive. Beyond that, it is exactly the same which flu vaccine you are offered.
– How do you know that vaccines made this spring will work on the flu virus this season?
– It is one of the weaknesses of the vaccines that we have now. The flu vaccines are prepared well in advance of the season. The choice of which viruses are common in the vaccine is based on observations in humans and animals around the world.
For the most part, these tests make it quite clear which viruses are included in the vaccine. Then the vaccine has a good effect. Sometimes they miss something. But there is always no effect of flu vaccines.
– Is 1 meter distance effective against virus transmission from influenza?
– It is never possible to set a safe limit for exactly what distance is effective against virus transmission. But the further away you are, the more the risk of infection is reduced. Local wind conditions, temperature and how the virus gets into the air around us come into play. If it comes in a hard cough, the virus will be able to move a good distance.
– What is simple advice right now?
-A large majority of adults are now fully vaccinated against sars-cov-2, so for most of us this fall will be more of a normal situation. That being said, it is extra important to stay home this year if you are ill. Else good hand hygiene is always wise. If you cough, it is also good manners to keep your mouth shut.
– Is the goal to achieve herd immunity to the flu?
-No, when it comes to the flu vaccine, you think about the individual and the extent to which you can tolerate being infected and sick by the flu virus. Therefore, it is especially recommended for the elderly and others in risk groups to take the flu vaccine. We also think about the extent to which someone can infect others. Therefore, healthcare professionals are advised to take the flu vaccine.
Should children get the flu vaccine?
– It is not recommended for children, but some children, such as diabetics, may benefit from the flu vaccine.