“It’s just the flu“.We have all heard this phrase many times, usually as a way to reassure someone with or from respiratory pain. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,”it’s a more Just from the flu“, to encourage vaccination against Covid-19 and mitigation measures such as masking. In other words, downplaying influenza has been deployed to emphasize the severity of Covid-19 as a strategy throughout the pandemic.
But imagine hearing over and over again that the flu isn’t a big deal when you’re one of the thousands of people who each year suffer the loss of a loved one to the flu. These words are not reassuring. They are infuriating.
We are two of thousands of people who have been personally affected by the flu: Our two previously healthy young boys, Joseph Marotta (5 years old) and JJ Neiman-Brown (2 years old), died of “flu only” in 2009 and 2020 respectively. As scientists and mothers, in order to prevent more of these deaths, we ask that we all work together to remove common language misconceptions that underestimate the risk of influenza.
After COVID-19, influenza is the most deadly vaccine-preventable disease in the United States Over the past decade, each flu season in the United States resulted in an estimated 9,000,000–41,000,000 illnesses, 140,000–710,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000–52,000 deaths, including more than 100 children. There are also significant economic and health burdens from influenza that extend beyond hospitalization and death, such as missed work and school days.
The flu is serious. COVID-19 is dangerous. Measles is serious. Whooping cough is dangerous. It’s not a contest. Vaccines for these pathogens are available because they have caused a significant public health burden, including loss of life. Pitting these infectious diseases against each other suggests that it is better to prevent one than the other.
Influenza-related child deaths affect hundreds of families each year. Before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 531 children in the United States lost their lives to influenza during the 2017-18, 2018-19, and 2019-20 seasons.
a recent study of US children who compared the burdens of influenza and COVID-19 found that the prevalence of life-threatening illnesses was similar for both diseases.
These numbers do not represent the whole story. Flu deaths are almost certainly underreported because children who die from flu complications may not be tested for flu, flu viruses are not always detected by some testing, and flu is not always included on the death certificates of those who died from complications related to influenza.
The threat posed by influenza increases in societies affected by the consequences of systemic racism, including unequal access to health care that leads to the stark disparities in disease burden and health outcomes that often characterize historically marginalized communities. People from many racial and ethnic minority groups have higher rates of acute influenza-related outcomes, including hospitalization and death. CDC . Study showed significant racial and ethnic disparities in influenza-related hospitalization rates, ICU admissions, and in-hospital mortality rates; Disparities were more pronounced among children. The widespread underestimation of influenza severity in our country and culture may exacerbate these disparities.
We know that an annual flu vaccination is the best protection against seasonal flu. Flu vaccines save the lives of adults and children. However, influenza vaccination coverage was well below the 2030 target for healthy people of 70% set by the US Department of Health and Human Services as a possible goal for personal protection and community immunity.
There is nothing to gain from pitting deadly infectious diseases against one another. Children and adults will die needlessly if we reduce the burden of disease and the risks posed by influenza. It’s long overdue to take the flu risk seriously. It is our collective responsibility as parents, caregivers, health care professionals, scientists and public health advocates to prioritize actions needed to better prevent and control influenza.
Ceres Marotta is Director of Advocacy and Education at Vaccinate your family.
Maureen Neiman is a professor in the Department of Biology and the Department of Gender, Women, and Gender Studies at the University of Iowa. Marotta and Niemann presented their findings in The 15th National Conference of Immunization Alliances and Partnerships.
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