Written by Staff Writer
Vigorous flu vaccination programs have helped the Dominican Republic prevent the widespread spread of the highly contagious virus.
Now that the season has begun, the World Health Organization reports that this year’s vaccine might be insufficient to combat what is expected to be an especially severe flu season.
For example, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) data show that while overall average rates of flu this year may be 8% lower than usual, that level is still above those in recent years.
Despite these limitations, it remains possible that people who received the vaccination might still become infected.
The situation is “interesting because we have an excellent vaccination program and it could have made a difference,” said Dr. Yiannis Lekkas, WHO regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Influenza virus particles and glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) patients, including (from left to right) Liza, Nicolas and José Vazquez, in the Comprehensive Center of Excellence for Pediatric Cancer of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic. Credit: Justin Lane/AFP/Getty Images
Covid-19 is a high severity strain of the influenza virus which is “probably” caused by a H3N2 virus, said Dr. Julieta Garriga, head of pediatric epidemiology at PAHO. But “really it is difficult to say,” she added.
Passport in your pocket
Garriga said that there is “a lot of suspicion” that at least some of the hospital cases in the Dominican Republic might be related to exposure to the flu virus, but no proof has been provided to prove this yet.
It’s impossible to know for sure that the number of these infections has jumped in part because people have been vaccinated, as doctors have discretion over what should be done about the patients they see.
“For example, in a country like the Dominican Republic, a vaccinated person is treated even if the infection occurs after vaccination,” said Lekkas.
But, he added, a traveler might have the virus before he or she gets the vaccination — or the vaccination itself might not reach the patient in time. In this case, his or her health could be “deteriorated and end up causing complications” that could lead to hospitalization.
The result could be a confirmed case of Zika, which leads to serious birth defects in a baby as a result of the virus being passed through the mother to the child during pregnancy.
People who get the vaccination either “are protected against not only influenza, but also other viruses like Zika, shingles or ‘the bird flu,'” Lekkas said.
A “bucket” campaign from the World Health Organization instructs school children on how to prevent the spread of influenza. Credit: AW Archive/Getty Images
With the flu season just getting into full swing, there’s no telling how many more people could be infected — and added to the growing list of those who have been hospitalized.
Earlier this year, CNN reported that the United States Department of Health and Human Services had estimated that 40,000 people are hospitalized every year due to influenza complications.
With the strains this year not being as severe as in previous years, this year’s vaccine is “probably not a perfect vaccine,” said Lekkas. But, he added, “we are happy that we have (one).”
Covid-19 is the seventh endemic flu strain detected this year. Lekkas said that high levels of the virus were also found in Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands — suggesting that “it seems that this is a global disease.”
When people are being vaccinated, “they have to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, and this affects their immune response,” he added.