How strong is the coming flu epidemic? Nobody can predict that exactly, because the viruses are extremely changeable. In any case, looking back shows that the pathogen should not be underestimated.
With a harmless cold, the flu cannot compare, the latest figures for the penultimate season impressively. Around 25,100 people in Germany lost their lives to the exceptionally strong flu epidemic in 2017/18, as the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported.
This is the highest number of deaths in the past 30 years, said RKI President Lothar Wieler. There are also seasonal waves with a few hundred deaths. A comparison value for the RKI “moderate” wave 2018/19 is not yet available.
“This number should give all vaccine skeptics to think,” said Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn ( CDU ). He called especially the elderly, the chronically ill, pregnant women as well as medical and nursing staff, in time to be vaccinated against flu. The Steady Vaccination Commission (Stiko) recommends vaccination to these groups. The optimal time for this is October and November. The flu wave usually reaches its peak after the turn of the year.
The influenza virus can be transmitted through tiny droplets, such as sneezing.
Scientists differentiate between several types of a virus; for humans, the seasonal influenza A and B viruses are particularly relevant. Real flu often starts suddenly. Typical symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, limb and headache, and general malaise. So far, according to the Paul Ehrlich Institute, around 15.7 million doses of vaccine have been released.
They contain components of the expected virus variants. “The vaccine for the new season has two new, updated Influenza A components – a vaccine is particularly worthwhile,” said RKI expert Silke Buda the news agency dpa. According to the Institute, the vaccine is the most important protective measure. In addition, the experts recommend, for example, thorough hand washing with soap and distance to patients.
Compared to the violent penultimate flu epidemic experts classify the past season as moderate, as Buda said. “It was not mild, because there were serious cases.” According to the RKI’s new influenza report, the wave caused 3.8 million visits to doctors – less than half the rate in 2017/18. 40,000 people came to the hospital, according to Buda, in many cases with acute respiratory distress syndrome or pneumonia. Overall, from October to mid-May, the institute registered 182,000 laboratory-confirmed influenza cases. Affected were all age groups.
It was noticeable that both influenza A subtypes (H1N1 and H3N2) circulated more or less equally. “There were almost no influenza B viruses on the way,” said Buda. The strong wave in 2017/18 was to a large extent triggered by influenza B viruses (Yamagata line).
In the absence of influenza B viruses, the new quadruple vaccine, now recommended by Stiko, has not yet been effective this past season, Buda said. This vaccine is intended to protect against four virus variants, containing two A and two B components each. Previously, those insured under the law generally received a cheaper triple vaccine with only one B component.
“The efficacy of the vaccine, in general, is mixed,” said Buda. “We were able to show a very good clinical efficacy against H1N1 viruses, but as in the past, no real efficacy against H3N2 viruses.” However, vaccine readiness was greater than before. After illnesses in the 2017/18 season, many people realized that “it is not a simple cold, but something you should really protect yourself against,” said Buda. This applies especially to risk groups.
How the next wave in will turn out? “Looking at other countries and the southern hemisphere does not give a clear picture,” said Buda. Currently, more influenza viruses are detected worldwide daily.