What If We Could Predict When the Flu Could Strike? A New Tool Can Do Just ThatHeather Neal
Every year about this time my husband and I have the same argument, I mean, cough cough, debate. It’s not about how much money to spend on Christmas or when to travel to what family in what cities. It’s about the flu shot, and whether we should get it or not. Since having a child, I adamantly argue yes, we need to get flu shots. I don’t care so much about myself (until it’s me curled up in the fetal position in bed in the midst of flu misery, of course), but I seriously care about my toddler son coming down with the flu. His immune system is less than two years old, he has asthma, and he’s in daycare. Daycare, by the way, is code for surrounded by nasty germs and snot day in and day out. The flu isn’t just an annoyance for little ones; it can literally be life-threatening in some cases. I didn’t hesitate to give him the flu shot the minute he was old enough to get it, and despite the inconvenience of a trip to the pediatrician’s office for a two-second shot, I quickly scheduled the appointment as soon as flu season rolled around.
The debate rolls around when it comes to the husband and I getting flu shots ourselves, not for our son. (Honestly, I didn’t give him the choice to say no.) The husband takes the quite common stance of “the flu shot gives me the flu” or the variation “I’ve only gotten the flu the year I’ve gotten the shot.” My side of the debate is the medical argument about how the flu shot works (it’s a prediction of that year’s virus so they may get it wrong, even if you end up getting the flu it’s a milder version, it takes a couple weeks to take effect so you might get the flu anyways, and sometimes you have a reaction to the vaccine, but it’s not actually the flu). Can you tell I used to work in the medical field? Now my argument includes that we as parents should get the flu shot so that we don’t risk exposing our son if we do happen to get it.
In full procrastination-prone disclosure, flu season has been gearing up for months now, and I’ve yet to get my shot. Oops. It used to be easy — I worked in a medical clinic with chronically ill patients, and employees were required to get the vaccine, so we didn’t expose our immune-weakened patients. Kind of like my argument for not exposing our son. But when you don’t have to leave your office to get the shot, it’s not a big deal. When you have to schedule an appointment, find a babysitter, and drag yourself into the doctor’s office, it’s easy to make excuses.
So it’s midway through December, and scheduling that five-minute appointment is still on my to-do list. My husband would argue it’s too late now, so why bother? But flu season can extend through April; it may not be too late at all. If only there were a way to look into the future and know whether the worst of it was over. Well, apparently, there’s now a way to predict the flu. (Seriously, is there anything they can’t come up with?) Researchers from Columbia University have developed a flu predictor, which can be used to forecast periods and locations of heavy flu outbreaks. It’s not fool-proof of course, but so far it’s been pretty accurate. During the 2012-2013 flu season, the tool was accurately able to predict flu trends up to nine weeks in advance. It doesn’t say whether this resulted in any fewer cases or not, but I suspect in the future it certainly could make an impact. Doctors could be more prepared, cities could make a bigger push for vaccines, or stores could be massive tubs of hand-sanitizer on sale. The tool uses Google flu search information plus data from reported cases to come up with trends and predictions for when the flu may hit different regions the hardest. So if the predictor is saying January is going to hold the worst cases in the south this year (and I’m not saying it does — I have no idea), I either need to get off my lazy butt and get that shot already, or start washing my hands like my life depends on it.
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