The flu shot may not work this season — what you need to know

Dec 4, 2014 at 7:20 p.m. ET

The CDC and many doctors are warning that the flu shot may not be as effective this season because the virus has mutated into a flu strain the shot doesn't actually target.

The flu shot may not be able to fully ward off the dreaded disease, but is it still worth getting one this year — or shouldn't you bother? And what about the kids if you have them?

Here's the deal: A panel of doctors and other specialists decided last winter what the three biggest strains would be to include in the anti-flu drug. They targeted H1N1, Influenza B and Influenza A (H3N2), three of those that can cause the most serious forms of the disease.

That third strain of Influenza A has since mutated and become the dominant one to strike so far. And the existing vaccine isn't fighting it off so well.

Though it's less effective against fighting the flu completely, it "might reduce the likelihood of severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death," says a CDC advisory on the flu shot.

Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatrics infectious diseases specialist, says that even though the strains don't quite match up, "we don't know the full story — this is the beginning of the story."

"It's definitely worth getting," says Esper, of Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland. "This is one of the first updates of how the flu is turning out to be this year. It does not seem to be as effective against the predominant strain so far, but that doesn't mean it's not effective at all. It's about half-and-half."

It's likely that if you are vaccinated and catch the flu, it will be milder and won't last as long than if you didn't have the shot at all. And the flu going around now isn't necessarily the same one we'll see after the new year.

No matter what, it's the best way to protect those who are most susceptible, including babies, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, smokers and people with asthma and heart problems.

"When I talk to a mom and they say, 'Hey, should I still get the vaccine?' I say, 'Absolutely!'" Esper tells us. "While it may not be as effective now in December of 2014, we have no idea whether that’s still going to be true in January, February or March of 2015."

Consider this: Between 100 and 200 kids typically die each year from the flu in America alone. The flu is the #1 most deadly infectious disease by far in the U.S. It's a much bigger threat than Ebola or any of the other terrifying illnesses we hear about, according to Esper.

"None of those come anywhere close to the deaths each and every year caused by influenza," he says.

During 2012-2013, 149 kids died and 12,337 people landed in the hospital because of flu or flu-linked illnesses, the CDC reported, and of those about 90 percent weren't vaccinated.

That's not including those of us who wind up at home in bed missing work for days with a serious bout of the nasty bug.

"It's the best way to prevent the illness, to prevent a child from being hospitalized or a grandparent from dying," Esper says. "When you get the flu shot, you're not only protecting yourself but others around you."

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