Last year’s flu season may have resulted in the deaths of at least 80,000 people throughout the United States, making it one of the worst seasons on record and raising concerns about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine as this year’s season begins.
According to an NBC News report, officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced the death toll from last year’s flu in an interview with the Associated Press, noting that it resulted in the most flu deaths since the winter of 1976-77.
Contributing to the high fatality rate was a less effective flu vaccine, which the CDC estimates was effective only 40% of the time. However, the strain of flu itself was more virulent than usual, causing more hospitalizations and deaths, and striking hard at children and the elderly.
While the CDC has not yet released an official count, the preliminary estimate indicate that the flu caused about 80,000 deaths. An average year ranges from about 12,000 to 56,000 deaths. The latter number is considered a particularly bad year under normal circumstances.
The CDC has also noted that there were 180 child deaths reported during the flu season, which surpasses the highest recorded number of 171 children in the 2012-2013 season. The CDC noted that about 80% of those deaths occurred among children who had not received a flu shot.
“The 2017-2018 influenza season was a high severity season with high levels of outpatient clinic and emergency department visits for influenza-like illness (ILI), high influenza-related hospitalization rates, and elevated and geographically widespread influenza activity for an extended period,” CDC officials said in a summary of the flu season issued late last month. “The 2017-18 season was the first season to be classified as a high severity across all age groups.”
The worst season on record was the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than half a million people in the U.S. according to historical data.
In a press release issued September 27, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tried to reassure the public about the effectiveness of the flu shot for the coming season.
“While the effectiveness of the vaccine may vary year to year, I want to assure you that evidence remains strong to support the benefits of the annual flu vaccine for most people,” Gottlieb said. “Though flu season is generally thought of as starting in September, we at the FDA work year-round to prepare for each flu season. And we’re committed to working together with the scientific and medical communities to better protect the public against the flu and apply lessons learned to improve vaccine effectiveness each year.”
Gottlieb noted that the FDA is key in selecting which strain will be included in seasonal flu vaccines. That evaluation is key in getting the season’s flu shot formulation correct. However, Gottlieb noted that the agency had guessed correctly last season, but the strain was resistant to the vaccine.
“Last year’s flu vaccine was less protective than it had been in many previous years. In part, this was because the vaccine was not as effective against one of the predominant circulating strains of influenza,” Gottlieb said. “That circulating strain of influenza was contained in the vaccine. In other words, we guessed right about the common strains that dominated last year’s flu season.”
An FDA advisory committee met in March to recommend which flu vaccine strains to prepare for this coming flu season.
In addition to concerns over the effectiveness of the flu vaccine and the severity of the flu strains, there were also concerns that Tamiflu, a common treatment for those who have contracted the flu, may increase the risk of suicide among teens.
During the rough flu season, observers said there appeared to be a spike in the reported incidents of children and teens committing suicide or trying to commit suicide after taking Tamiflu, raising concerns among parents and medical providers about the side effects of the antiviral flu treatment.
The Tamiflu teen suicide problems appeared to mirror similar cases reported in Japan several years ago, which led to an investigation and warning in Japan that Tamiflu may increase suicidal thoughts among pediatric users.
In 2007, health officials in Japan investigated the risk of suicide on Tamiflu, after at least 18 incidents involving teens killing themselves were reported during a 17 month period, resulting in a health warning by health officials in that country.
In a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2009, researchers concluded that the side effects of Tamiflu may do more harm than good for pediatric users, highlighting the risks of nightmares, insomnia, nausea, vomiting and other psychological problems.
In the United States, Tamiflu warnings only vaguely mention “abnormal behavior” risks among children, and the information suggests that the issues may be side effects of the flu, rather than problems with Tamiflu, which increasingly seems to be the case.
A growing number of families are now questioning why the drug maker failed to adequately warn about the risk of suicidal thoughts and hallucinations on Tamiflu, which may have allowed their children to avoid injuries caused by self harm. As additional evidence links suicides and Tamiflu, lawsuits may be filed against the manufacturer.