Even Vaccinated, People Are Getting Dose of Flu

By William Wan and David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 16, 2008

If you got a flu shot this season but still came down with the virus, you're not alone.

More than half of the influenza cases in the United States this winter, 52 percent, have been caused by strains that are not in the current vaccine, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday.

The stubborn virus has spread across the country, gripping several areas in the Washington region.

But the estimate doesn't mean people should not get inoculated this season, experts said. A flu shot provides some measure of protection, because even the strains not in the current vaccine are descended from ones that are.

"This season, we are seeing more disease out there, and probably higher rates of hospitalization and death than we have seen in the last couple of years," said Joseph S. Bresee, an epidemiologist in the CDC's influenza division. But compared with rates in the past two decades, he said, "it is not an atypical season."

Still, there are signs that the flu's reach may be extending.

Health officials in 44 states, including Maryland and Virginia, are reporting "widespread" flu activity, the CDC said, up from 31 states reported last week. Cases have also been reported in the District, but not at widespread levels.

Washington area hospitals, doctors' offices and schools have reported sharp increases in achy, nauseated and feverish patients. Since October, Shady Grove Adventist Hospital has seen 317 cases of flu, twice as many as in the same period last season. More than two dozen people with flu-like symptoms have been admitted to the hospital this season, most of them children.

Michael Sauri, an infectious disease specialist at Shady Grove, said he first saw evidence of "vaccine failure" Jan. 21, when immunized patients began coming in with flu-like symptoms. He said he sent out a query to others in his field and learned that the same was happening "all over the U.S." and other parts of the world.

Sauri said that some patients have been frustrated because they've had to stay home from work. "I hope it doesn't shake people's faith in the system," he said.

Montgomery County school officials said about 20 schools reported last week that more than 10 percent of students were absent, mainly because of the virus.

"It seems to be getting better, though," said Judith Covich, Montgomery schools health director. She said a day off for students Tuesday on Election Day and a delayed opening Wednesday because of the icy weather might have decreased the virus's chances to circulate.

Colleges have also been affected. The outbreak at the University of Virginia is the worst in a decade -- flu has been diagnosed in more than 400 students.

The University of Maryland is reporting the worst outbreak in years, also with more than 400 students ill.

At George Mason University, about 30 students have contracted the virus.

Health officials said they aren't sure how much worse the outbreak will get in the Washington area. "We won't know whether the peak in cases has occurred until it's passed," said Rene Najera, an epidemiologist for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

More than 200,000 Americans are hospitalized each year because of the flu, and thousands die. State health officials are investigating whether flu played a role in the death of a child in Eastern Virginia.

Health officials said this season's vaccine is failing to ward off the flu because a new strain was identified last February, weeks after the components of this year's vaccine had been chosen. Each season, flu virologists meet to decide the formula for the next year's vaccine.

The World Health Organization recommended yesterday that next year's vaccine be composed of three strains of the virus now circulating, including the two responsible for more than half of the current U.S. cases. U.S. public health officials will make their recommendations next week for next season's vaccine.

Meanwhile, health officials are urging people to get flu shots, saying that it is not too late.

The vaccine will not fully protect against some strains, but "it's much better than nothing at all," Najera said.

Staff writers Susan Levine, Ian Shapira, Valerie Strauss and Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company