Flu Season 2019: 16 Children Have Already Died From Influenza—It's Not Too Late to Get the Shot | Opinion

As we enter the flu season's peak period, 19 states are reporting high levels of flu-related activity—combined with an increase in the number of child deaths as a result of the influenza virus. The past three weeks have seen a marked increase in the flu virus's spread.

Many of us who study influenza are advising the public to prepare for the full brunt of the 2019 flu season. Flu-related activity is just now starting to ramp up and peak levels may still have not been fully reached. This year's flu season may continue for longer than originally expected. Now, more than ever, it is imperative for every American—including children—the elderly and the vulnerable, get the flu shot as soon as possible. It is not too late.

At the start of flu season, I strongly urged Americans to get the shot despite the potential for a milder cycle than last year's deadly flu season. As a member of the team of scientists responsible for recommending the composition of the flu vaccine each year, this year's shot has been reformulated and updated based on last year's experience. We typically look to the Southern Hemisphere to gauge how the flu is progressing, and the dominant circulating viruses are better matched to this year's vaccine. The flu vaccine is not perfect, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports a good match between this year's early season U.S. viruses and the vaccine.

The CDC recently reported that over 7 million Americans have fallen sick from the flu, and already tallied a death toll of 13 children. The 2017-2018 flu season will be remembered as one of the deadliest seasons on record with more than 80,000 people dead from flu-related causes—the worst in four decades. That number included 185 children, 80 percent of whom did not get the flu vaccine. We do not want a repeat of this terrible situation.

Now is the time to get a flu shot—it is not too late.

The public should know that the flu vaccine is still effective for the current flu season. There is still time to get the full benefits of the vaccine, which continues to be the number one most effective way to protect yourself, your neighbors and the most vulnerable.

Although not a complete guarantee, the flu shot is a valuable and life-saving public health tool. If the vaccine doesn't prevent you from contracting the flu, it can still protect against the severity of the illness. In addition to receiving the flu vaccine, there are also additional simple and effective prevention tips to protect you and your family.

Some of these include:

  • Cleaning your hands often with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Staying home if you're sick.
  • Covering your mouth and nose if you cough or sneeze. Also, washing your hands after coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoiding touching your nose and mouth.

These are basic, life-saving precautions you can take to minimize risk and help control the spread of the virus. While interacting with your friends, family, coworkers and others in your community, practicing a few simple steps can help combat the dangerous flu virus. Just by practicing them, they could prevent you, your family and neighbors from getting and spreading the flu.

As many of us know, the flu virus has the potential to sicken many and, tragically, result in the deaths of those with weakened immune systems. By getting the flu shot, you can minimize the risk to not only yourself, but also those around you. The fewer opportunities the virus has to spread, the better the chance of fewer people getting sick, sickening others or possibly dying.

Last year's 100th anniversary of the 1918 Flu Pandemic was an urgent reminder of the worst damage the flu could do—and I continue to warn Americans that the flu can be deadly. It is the responsibility of not only scientists like me to develop an effective vaccine, but also a team effort by each and every one of us as our civic duty to protect each other by taking simple and effective steps to preventing the spreading of the flu.

It's not too late to get the flu shot—get it now.

Richard Webby, Ph.D., is a member of the infectious disease department at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Director of the World Health Organization's Collaborating Center on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals and Birds that focuses on understanding influenza and improving vaccines to combat the virus.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​