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Some Doctors Concerned Flu Vaccine May Only Reduce Risk By 10 Percent

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Flu season has started.

"The flu has arrived here in Pennsylvania. We've seen cases now for several weeks. And, nationally, there's been a significant increase in the last several weeks as well," says Allegheny General Hospital internist Dr. Marc Itskowitz.

Some states are reporting widespread activity, and others, local activity.

"We're seeing earlier cases, and the predominant strain is H3N2, which is different from prior seasons," he adds. "The seasons in which H3N2 predominates, those are the seasons we see more severe illness, more hospitalizations."

And there is some concern this year's vaccine may only reduce the risk by 10 percent.

"Ten percent was the number in Australia. We won't know what the number is here in the United States for several months," he said.

Australia, where the flu season comes before ours, had a high number of cases and more than the usual number of people in the hospital with the flu.

"The World Health Organization decides which strains go into each year's vaccine," says KDKA Health Editor, Dr. Maria Simbra. "Sometimes the circulating viruses mutate and change the proteins on their surface that the vaccine recognizes, or the vaccine virus mutates in the manufacturing process."

How well it works depends on the strains covered, and the person it goes into.

"Some patients generate antibodies that are protective and others don't," Dr. Itskowitz explains.

Even a little protection is better than none.

"Every year about 200,000 people get hospitalized. That's where the cost really goes up. If you can save or reduce the amount of patients being hospitalized, it is a cost-effective approach," he says.

With the holidays coming up, and people traveling from one part of the country to another, take extra care. Avoid sick people, and wash your hands often.

"In any given patient, it really comes down to 0 or 100. Either you're going to get the flu this year or you're not," Dr. Itskowitz says, "You have to be careful even if you've had the flu vaccine."

Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker tells the "KDKA Morning News" it is important that people still get immunized.

"You should still be getting your flu vaccine and this is a good time to get it," said Dr. Hacker.

The flu vaccine covers four different strains of influenza, and Dr. Hacker says even if the vaccine isn't working as well as planned, it is still important to get vaccinated.

"We are very concerned that we don't want that dissuading people from getting their vaccines because a whole uncovered population is going to be in a much worse potential condition because then you can see flu really spread among everyone," said Dr. Hacker.

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