Oct 4, 2021
Why the flu shot is more important than ever this year
This fall, anyone over 5 has the option of getting vaccinated against both COVID and the seasonal flu – netting protection against potentially dangerous co-infections while avoiding additional strain on the health system.
"I recommend getting the flu vaccine every year, but particularly this year," said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious disease at Brigham and Women's Hospital. "It is most important for especially vulnerable people like young children, elderly, and those with chronic health conditions."
COVID is more infectious and more deadly than the seasonal flu – but the flu causes approximately 30,000 deaths a year, and the vaccine is effective in preventing severe illness.
Kuritzkes talked to Coverage about why the flu shot should be on everyone’s to-do list this season.
Flu vaccination reduces hospitalization and death
The flu shot has been found to keep people, especially the elderly and very young, from getting dangerously ill from the seasonal virus, Kuritzkes said.
"The flu vaccine is recommended for children as young as 6 months, because influenza causes significant disease in younger children," he said. "They're also vectors in the spread to older and other vulnerable populations."
Health officials estimate that 80% of flu deaths among young children occur in those who are not vaccinated.
The elderly are also at risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 70% and 85% of flu-related deaths annually occur in people 65 years and older. Between 50% and 70% of flu-related hospitalizations are also among people in this age group.
Other high-risk groups include people with chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, along with pregnant people.
Flu vaccination will free up hospital beds
The pandemic has filled intensive care units and emergency departments in regions with low vaccination rates, pushing health care systems to their limits. Adding yet another infectious disease outbreak to this strain could be disastrous, Kuritzkes said.
"In a typical year, we see a spike of influenza hospitalizations, and on their own, those numbers are manageable," Kuritzkes said. "But when you add that to the enormous burden due to COVID-19, the capacity to stretch just isn't there."
Flu vaccination from 2019 to 2020 prevented an estimated 7.5 million influenza illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, 105,000 hospitalizations, and 6,300 deaths.
There are a couple key differences between the flu and COVID-19 symptoms - for example, the loss of taste and smell is mostly associated with the coronavirus. But because COVID-19 and the flu can sometimes present similarly, high numbers of flu cases would also bring in more patients to get COVID-19 tests, Kuritzkes noted.
"It can be nearly impossible to distinguish influenza from COVID-19 clinically," he said. "It would need to be tested to rule out the possibility, and that in itself imposes a considerable burden."
Flu vaccination will prevent dual infections
Because both the flu and the coronavirus can cause serious inflammation and fluid build-up in the lungs, having both at once can be extremely dangerous, Kuritzkes said.
“Multiple viral respiratory infections can lead to ‘super infections’ that are resistant to treatment and can increase complications, as well as death,” he said.
Protecting children too young to be vaccinated against COVID is especially important; with a flu shot, they at least will be shielded from one infection.
"It's easy to lose track in the current COVID pandemic, but there are tens of thousands of seasonal flu deaths each season," Kuritzkes said. "A lot of that is preventable with the vaccine."
For more information, visit the CDC’s flu vaccine page.
Image of Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes from Brigham and Women’s Hospital