2018 Welcomes Historic Flu Season

Whether it be homework, sports, performances, or standardized tests, it’s easy to find something that occupies Westminster students. However, 2018 has seen the rise of a completely new concern for students: staying healthy. This year’s flu outbreak has been one of the worst in history, with millions of Americans affected and thousands hospitalized.

The predominant strain of the influenza virus this season has been the nasty H3N2, known for its rapid mutation. The H3N2 strain, which has been around for over 50 years, causes not only more sickness, but more serious illness, hospitalizations, and even deaths, especially for those younger than 16 and older than 65. Part of the increased activity is due to H3N2’s ability to combat the human immune system more effectively than other strains of the virus (washingtonpost.com).

The 2018 flu season has been so intense that urgent care and emergency room visits have increased past the levels of the 2009 swine flu pandemic, with the most hospitalizations in the last decade and ten child deaths this season (fortune.com). Furthermore, this year’s flu shot has been considerably ineffective, as it has fallen below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official effectiveness range of 45-55% accuracy.

“It’s really hard to predict the flu shot, since they have to design the flu shot in the spring based on what the prevalent flus are in [and near] Asia,” said biology teacher Amy Slack. “By the time our flu season rolls around, the flu viruses have mutated. I think it mutated more than anyone expected [this year], but we always get those surprises.”

Despite the relatively low success of this year’s shot, however, the CDC, along with local and Westminster authorities, encourage everyone to make sure they receive their flu shot (cdc.gov).

“Certainly get your flu shot,” said Slack. “I know this year’s wasn’t as effective, but there are other strains of flu that it [the vaccine] is still effective against.”

This year’s flu virus has been so devastating that it has also affected patients in hospitals for other medical reasons.  

“I was visiting my grandma at Grady Memorial Hospital, but the people at the hospital said that nobody under the age of 16 should go, because the flu was so bad, and they didn’t want people to catch it, because younger people are more prone to it,” said freshman Lily Fleischmann. “My mom talked to some of the nurses and decided that I should go, but I had to wear a mask whenever I was in any of the halls, and I couldn’t touch anything until I was in her room.”

Hospitalizations from the flu have even pressured Atlanta hospitals into diversion, which a practice where patients are moved to other hospitals due to lack of space or other resources.

“The hospital was really full and all the hospitals in the area are on diversion . . . so they had to send my grandma to a hospital two hours away, and they didn’t have an extra room, so she was sitting on a bed in the hallway for a while,” said Fleischmann.

Numerous members of the Westminster community have felt the effects of this year’s flu epidemic themselves as well.

“I feel like students are absent for longer,” said Slack. “They’re staying home for three to four days, which is good because they need to stay home and feel better.”

Some reasons explaining why schools create such an intense breeding ground for the spread of the influenza virus is the close proximity between students and that various students breathe on and touch the same things for eight hours daily.

“We move around a lot and touch a lot of things and don’t always wash our hands between classes,” said Slack. “People come to school when they probably shouldn’t. Just make sure to wash your hands after you eat or blow your nose.”  

A way to prevent the further spread of the flu as the season nears its peak is by making sure to get rest and to isolate yourself from others.

“I think it’s hard at Westminster because nobody wants to miss school, and everyone still comes to school when they’re sick,” said senior Isabella Velarde. “Everyone wasn’t feeling well, so it spread to me. I think the hardest part is that [students] don’t want to and can’t afford to miss school.”

As of right now, there is still no way to accurately predict what strains of the influenza virus will dominate in upcoming flu seasons. This is the largest barrier to creating effective flu vaccines, but scientists are closer than ever before to discovering a universal flu vaccine that will trigger a large immune response without making the person sick and a strong reaction from T-cells, the white blood cells that are known to fight disease. This is promising, because the current flu vaccine focuses on antibodies that target a certain shape of the virus, which is prone to the virus’s mutation. The T-cells, however, target many features of the virus and will thus ensure significantly more effectiveness.