The flu is the lead story on the evening news and on the front page of newspapers.
The flu is big news because it's bad this year. People all around the country are sick, and some are dying from the infection. For an explanation of why some people die very quickly see my colleague Josh Bloom's piece: This Year's Flu Is Different - It Kills In Two Ways.
And, it does not look like it's slowing down anytime soon. Check out the red line in the graph below - it represents this year's current cases and it is easy to see why people are nervous.
At this time 37 children have died from the flu. These are 37 tragic, heartbreaking stories of young loss of life. Each and every one brings tears to my eyes when I read them. You can read some of their stories here, here and here. Some experts predict the number of pediatric deaths this year will easily surpass 100.
So, what are we doing about it?
Some areas are closing schools in order to clean them and also to give overwhelmed school nurses a break. While keeping kids out of crowded areas is guaranteed to help, is this the best that we can do? The virus can only last on surfaces for 24 hours, according to the CDC. So, although a thorough cleaning may give you a nice clean school it won't help that much with transmission of the flu.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a state disaster emergency and issued an executive order, which allows pharmacists to give the vaccine to children.
Gov. Cuomo said, “With flu cases reaching epidemic proportions in New York, we must do everything in our power to fight this virus and keep New Yorkers safe."
But, is this "everything in our power?"
Even if the flu shot is easy to get and free, some people still will not get it. Maybe they are too busy, don't like needles (who does?), think that the flu vaccine can give them the flu (it can't) or that it's full of dangerous toxins (It isn't.)
So, what else can we do? Since, public schools already require vaccinations for MMR, polio, etc. in order to allow a student to come to school - why not add influenza to the list? Why do we require school kids to have some vaccines, but ignore the flu? More children will die of the flu this year in the United States than of polio and measles combined (zero). So, does it make sense to have some vaccines mandatory for school entry and leave the flu up to the parents' discretion?
Connecticut and New Jersey mandate the flu vaccine to attend school and Ohio and Rhode Island require it to enter into childcare. (1) This same mandate was attempted in New York City a few years back, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Despite the measure being approved unanimously by the Board of Health, anti-vaxx parents complained and the measure met fierce opposition.
It's not just the kids in school that would be protected by a vaccination mandate either - it would also protect their younger siblings and older grandparents that they are bringing the flu home to every day after school. A move like this would reduce the overall morbidity and mortality of the flu season. And, this year especially - that is something that we could use.
So, while executive orders are a good start and clean schools are lovely - a more effective measure would be to think about increasing vaccination rates - the only thing that will actually reduce flu deaths.
1) New York State public health law mandates “immunization against poliomyelitis, mumps, measles, diphtheria, rubella, varicella, Haemophilus influenza type b, pertussis, tetanus, pneumococcal disease, meningococcal disease and hepatitis B.”