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This Year's Flu And The Benefits Of Vaccination


The Centers for Disease Control report flu is widespread in three dozen states. According to California's Department of Public Health, 10 people under the age of 65 have died from influenza-related illnesses. Unfortunately, the vaccine being given is the same one that did not appear to work very well against the strain of virus that circulated in Australia. Still, public health officials want us to get that shot.

One of them is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He joins me now. Dr. Fauci, thank you for doing this.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI: Good to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: So where are we seeing flu activity now, and how severe is it compared with other years at this time?

FAUCI: Well, at this point in time, it looks like it's going to be a bad year. There are now 36 states, at least, that have what we call widespread influenza activity. So if you compare this time of the year with this time of the year in previous years, clearly, this is what you'd call an early, rather robust start to the influenza season, which usually foreshadows that you're going to have, relatively speaking, a bad year.

WERTHEIMER: Well, so how fast will we begin to notice that we're having a bad year?

FAUCI: Well, I think we're already there. If at this point in time, unless there's a quick turnaround, which you probably are not going to see, I think we can anticipate that it is going to be leaning towards the bad side of influenza years. How bad it's going to be you'll probably know much better as we get into mid- to late January and early February.

WERTHEIMER: Now, I understand that the current vaccine is not considered to be very effective or is likely not to be very effective. What does that mean?

FAUCI: Well, what that means when you look at how well it protects - that, in fact, it is not going to protect as well as you would like. For example, if a vaccine is 100 percent effective, which no vaccine is, that means it protects everyone who gets exposed to the virus. If it's 50 percent effective, that means it would only present about 50 percent of the people compared to those who don't get vaccinated.

We don't know what that number is going to be this season. It's too early. But it was a very low number in Australia, which had their winter just several months ago.

WERTHEIMER: So why are you still suggesting that people should get vaccinated if it's not going to offer that much protection?

FAUCI: Well, we don't know whether it's going to offer that much. It's still up in the air, even though we suspect it won't be very good. The fact remains and is always the case it is always better to get vaccinated than not to get vaccinated because some degree of protection, whatever that percentage is, is always better than not being protected at all.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that I've heard is that vaccinations may reduce the severity of the flu even if you get the flu - that being vaccinated may protect you against certain other kinds of infections?

FAUCI: Well, it won't protect you against other kinds of infections. The influenza vaccine will only protect you against influenza. But the point that you're making is a good one. If you get vaccinated, it may not protect you against getting actually infected, but it may mitigate or lessen the severity of your infection. For example, it might prevent you from getting so sick that you'd have to be hospitalized. And we know that when people get vaccinated, even when they get infected, there's a decrease in the necessity for hospitalization.

WERTHEIMER: It's not too late to get that vaccination, I understand.

FAUCI: Not at all. It's not too late at all. It certainly is not. If you're not vaccinated, you should go ahead and get vaccinated as soon as you can.

WERTHEIMER: OK. Dr. Fauci, thank you very much. Dr. Anthony Fauci directs the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. We appreciate this.

FAUCI: Thank you very much. It's good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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