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Historically mild flu season could be bad news for next season’s vaccine

Researchers have little data from this year about which infectious flu strains to use in next season’s shot

SAN ANTONIO – In the middle of the war against the deadly coronavirus, people feared another enemy entering the picture —the flu.

“There were a lot of concerns. People were calling it a potential twin-demic,” said epidemiologist Dr. Jason Bowling, who works with UT Health San Antonio and University Hospital.

Thankfully, that did not happen. In fact, Dr. Bowling said the opposite occurred. Cities across Texas, including San Antonio, are still reporting low numbers.

“This year, we’ve only had a handful of flu cases since April of last year. The few numbers we have seen have been outpatient, so it’s been really an unusual season, in a good way,” Bowling said.

That’s a trend across the nation, as well. Washington State recently reported zero flu-related deaths for the first time in 100 years.

With the whole world fielding COVID-19 in similar ways, flu trends have been low globally.

“More evidence that wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding travel can help eliminate some of these respiratory viruses like influenza,” Bowling said.

The problem is researchers developing flu vaccines for the upcoming season rely on current data to determine which flu strains are infecting people in both the northern and southern hemispheres. They use those strains to create vaccines that protect against them.

“We look at the flu activity that’s going on in the Southern Hemisphere during their flu season, so we have enough time to pick the strains and make enough vaccine for everybody for our flu season,” he said. “We’re not seeing the same seeding of flu from south to north and north to south, so we don’t have those strains to look at.”

Every year, the World Health Organization has a flu vaccine planning meeting in February to decide which strains need to be included in the upcoming vaccine.

“They’ve already had that meeting because they need to have enough time, about six months or so, to produce enough vaccine to have it available for our flu season,” Bowling explained.

He said the WHO’s decision is a tough one, but he has his own predictions.

“For the most part, I anticipate they’ll mostly use the flu strains from the year before because we had more numbers,” Bowling said.

Bowling said that regardless of this season’s data, people should plan to get this upcoming flu shot, as the mask, distancing and travel guidelines that kept us almost flu-free this year are beginning to relax.

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