With all the attention COVID 19 has been getting, we need to remember that many of the common infectious diseases we encounter at this time of the year are still with us. 30,000 to 60,000 people die each year in the U.S. from influenza, making it an important concern for physicians and patients alike. Data compiled and extracted from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that flu activity in the U.S. dropped dramatically in March 2020, to the lowest levels since 1997 (the earliest season this data was available). The rate of hospitalizations was also reduced significantly. Flu levels remained low through the summer, fall, and on into May of 2021.
A potential drawback to this low activity, however, is a more prevalent and severe upcoming flu season. The repeated exposure to flu viruses each year may not lead to illness, but does boost our immune response to influenza viruses. The absence of influenza viruses in the community over the last year means we are not getting these regular boosts to our immune system. When we do get exposed, our body may only mount a weak immune response and this could mean we develop a more severe illness.
This year I feel flu vaccination is even more important than ever. I have also been reminding my patients that the flu virus can live on surfaces, unlike the coronavirus. Hand washing is more important this year than ever, and I recommend you wear a mask in supermarkets and stores.