Health Care

What Australia’s nasty flu outbreak tells us about what to expect in Kansas City

A flu outbreak that rocked Australia this fall could be headed to the United States next, experts fear.

Flu season comes earlier in the southern hemisphere, so U.S. health officials watch Australia closely to gauge the effectiveness of the annual flu vaccine.

The shot was only about 10 percent effective this year in preventing the dominant virus, influenza A H3N2, leaving Australia with an epidemic that caused about twice as many hospitalizations as usual. Across all the strains for which it was produced, the vaccine was about 33 percent effective in Australia.

“Reports from Australia have caused mounting concern, with record-high numbers of laboratory-confirmed influenza notifications and outbreaks and higher-than-average numbers of hospitalizations and deaths,” a team of U.S. researchers wrote in an article published Nov. 29 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

But Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and one of the co-authors of the article, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he wanted to make one thing clear: some protection is better than no protection.

“It’s always better — always better — to be vaccinated than not vaccinated,” Fauci said.

Mary Anne Jackson, the chief of the pediatric infectious diseases section at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, said like Fauci, she wanted to make sure people aren’t deterred from getting the current vaccine.

“We want to continue to emphasize that vaccine is better than no vaccine and vaccine can prevent death, especially in children,” Jackson said.

Jackson said Australia’s experience is not a perfect predictor of what the United States will see. So far, she said, her hospital is seeing about a 60-40 split between influenza A and influenza B and this year’s vaccine was pretty good against B.

Darryl Nelson, the chief medical officer for the HCA Midwest Health System, said the system’s eight area hospitals have “just started in the last week or two to see a noticeable uptick” in patients with flu-like symptoms.

He said it’s not too late to get vaccinated and there’s evidence that even if the vaccine is not a perfect match for a flu strain it can lessen the duration, severity and communicability of the illness.

“You can still get some partial protection just by having an antibody to those core components,” Nelson said.

He said children, pregnant women, the elderly and people who have underlying conditions that put them at risk for flu complications should seek medical attention at the earliest symptoms, which often include a sudden spike of fever. Others can try home rest first, and all residents should be diligent about preventing the spread of germs.

Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control, said the federal agency will be releasing later this week the season’s first set of data on what the expected vaccine effectiveness is in the United States and what early-season flu vaccination coverage looks like.

It takes about six months to make a flu vaccine so it’s too late for U.S. companies to mass-produce one geared to stop the H3N2 strain that ravaged Australia.

Fauci said flu is inherently unpredictable, but all of the available evidence right now suggests that the flu season that begins in the U.S. this month won’t be a light one.

“We are using the same vaccine that the Australians used during their flu season and the virus that’s circulating here so far seems to be similar to the virus that gave them such problems,” Fauci said. “So you put those two things together and it’s reasonable to expect we’re going to have a more severe flu season than usual.”

Andy Marso: 816-234-4055, @andymarso