The Flu in 2016: Looking Back

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Each year, both national and global public health organizations monitor outbreaks and infection patterns for influenza and other communicable diseases. These reports enable public health officials to make recommendations and take action to contain outbreaks and improve people’s health around the world. Find out how authorities handled flu outbreaks in 2016, and learn what this could mean for public health officials addressing the flu in 2017.

How Public Health Officials Monitor Flu Outbreaks

Those who report on and study public health rely on official sources to provide comprehensive data on local and global outbreaks. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide data and weekly infection reports that highlight trends in individual states and across the nation. The CDC also offers recommendations for health professionals and individuals to reduce the spread of the flu.

The World Health Organization (WHO) monitors flu data and provides public health recommendations on a global scale. The WHO’s Global Influenza Program (GIP) collects data and offers guidance to Member States, allowing public health officials to react to and plan for current and upcoming flu seasons. The WHO also supports FluID, a platform that allows public health officials around the world to enter and track global flu epidemics.

Both organizations report on a variety of flu types, including avian, swine, pandemic, and seasonal. The seasonal type of influenza typically returns during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter season and provides an important study in the spread and control of communicable diseases.

How the 2016-2017 Flu Season Affected the World

In the U.S., flu cases typically begin in December, and reports peak in January or February. As NBC News recounts, each state and the District of Columbia had reported cases of the flu by early 2017. Throughout the season, the Influenza A (H3N2) strain appeared most frequently.

Symptom severity varies from year to year and can differ among patients. As WebMD reports, the H3N2 strain that was dominant during the 2016-2017 flu season was cause for concern. On average, this strain causes patients to experience more serious symptoms, and both children and elderly patients endured more severe symptoms than in previous seasons.

As the WHO reports, H3N2 was also the predominant strain around the globe, but some local differences appeared. In West Africa, for instance, the “B” influenza strain dominated, while respiratory syncytial virus was common in the U.S. These local variants illustrate the reason for the WHO recommending that public health officials have a flexible influenza outbreak plan that can adapt to the realities of the season.

How Authorities Handled Flu Outbreaks During the 2016-2017 Season

The CDC typically recommends that Americans over six months old get a flu vaccination every year, and 2016 was no different. For the 2016-2017 flu season, all available vaccinations included H3N2 strains, providing some protection from the dominant strain. In early January, however, NBC News reported that only 40 percent of Americans had been vaccinated. That means less than half of citizens armed themselves with any protection against the H3N2 strain.

As WebMD reports, vaccines are less effective against this severe “A” strain, which means people can still contract the flu even if they take precautions and get vaccinated. In fact, the flu vaccine only reduces a person’s chance of contracting an H3N2 strain by an average of 33 percent. Flu vaccines tend to be more effective against influenza “B” strains, lowering a person’s chances of getting sick by an average of 61 percent. As of early April 2017, CDC data indicated that vaccines lowered the risk of contracting the flu by about 50 percent.

However, public health officials recommend getting a flu vaccine for more than just prevention. The vaccine can also lessen the impact of the flu, lower the number hospitalizations, and even reduce the spread of the virus. All of these effects can prove particularly helpful for vulnerable populations like young children and the elderly.

How Public Health Officials Can Learn From 2016

As NBC News reports, the seasonal flu can kill anywhere from 4,000 to 50,000 people in the U.S., depending on the severity of the strain in a given year. The CDC doesn’t have the means to count every case of the flu, though, so it has long relied on estimates in its efforts to track flu outbreaks and make appropriate recommendations. As a result, the CDC and local public health officials don’t have an accurate idea of the flu season’s true impact until it ends.

When the 2017 flu season inevitably starts, public health officials can use their knowledge of the 2016 season to monitor outbreaks and make recommendations to keep people healthy. For instance, the unusual CDC report of a patient contracting an H7N2 strain of the flu from a cat may inform research about the spread and prevention of flu strains in 2017.

In addition, the CDC can use its data on the number of flu vaccines distributed and used to inform its recommendations for the 2017-2018 season. State and local public health officials can use their knowledge of area populations to reach out to vulnerable residents and make appropriate vaccination recommendations.

Public health officials can also work with hospital administrators and health care providers to assess proactive methods for handling the flu in 2017. Data on visits for influenza-like illness (ILI) can inform how doctors treat patients with flu-like symptoms, and information on the spread of influenza can help public health officials determine how and when to keep local populations informed.

Officials can use CDC reports on relatively low vaccination coverage to impact vaccine adoption in 2017. Since the CDC has issued a groundbreaking report that children can receive substantial benefits from flu vaccines, including a significant decrease in the risk of death from influenza, public health officials may amplify their recommendations for parents to vaccinate their children in 2017.

With a Master of Public Health online degree, you can do your part to influence public health policy and help lower the risk of influenza outbreaks for people around the world. Visit Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California to learn more about this advanced online degree program.

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