As someone who has studied influenza for decades now, every year I’m asked what we can expect for the upcoming flu season.

Predicting the annual flu vaccine

These predictions are never easy to make. In the southern hemisphere, it’s been a mixed bag. Some countries, such as Australia, had one of its most severe flu seasons for a number of years. Brazil, on the other hand, has had a very mild season. That means we can’t say with certainty what’s going to happen in the United States.

That is why I tell everyone I know to be prepared and get your flu shot.

Why you should get the flu shot

Despite advice from immunologists like myself, doctors and the Centers for Disease Control, only about half of Americans get the flu shot.

I’ve heard every reason not to get the shot. “I never get the flu” or “I got the shot and I got the flu anyway.”

To that I always respond, “The flu shot isn’t just about you.”

The best ways to prevent flu infection are:

  • Cleaning hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand cleaner,
  • Avoiding contact with those who have flu symptoms,
  • Taking anti-viral medicines after exposure to people known to have the flu, and
  • Getting an annual flu vaccination.

It’s not about you

Think of those who are most at-risk — the elderly, the young or people with chronic health problems. Even if you’re not worried about getting sick yourself, if you’re infected with the virus, you’re still a potential source of infection for those people.

At St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, we study flu because of the devastating effects it can have on children with cancer whose immune systems are weakened by cancer treatments.

As part of a team that comes up with the vaccine for the season, I am the first to acknowledge that we don’t always get the vaccine exactly right.

Flu research

Our infectious diseases department studies flu annually, including research trips domestically and abroad to identify possible problem flu strains that may show during flu season.

Since we know it’s a winter disease, we look at countries in the southern hemisphere to see or get a little hint of what might be coming up for winter in the northern hemisphere. In fact, we research bird flu strains by visiting a New England shoreline each year to take samples from birds that travel from the southern tip of South America and take a break to feed on horseshoe crabs that come to shore. After this stop, the shorebirds continue their journey to the Arctic to breed.

This research determines which strains are added to the vaccine.

Despite rigorous research, the flu virus is nasty. It changes constantly. That’s why it’s a good idea for you to be vaccinated each year.

If not for you, think of your friends and family. In many ways, the winter is a time of holidays and giving, and I for one want to give gifts that make people happy.

Richard Webby, PhD, explains why the flu virus, and the flu vaccine, change every year.