SOUTHERN INDIANA — Influenza season comes and goes every year, with most in the United States knowing when to expect cases to ramp up.
That cyclical regularity, though, may lead to a dampening in some people's understanding of just how dangerous the illness is. Thousands lose their lives battling the flu every year.
In the past two flu seasons alone, more than 140,000 Americans died from the illness. With the 2019-2020 flu season getting started, local health officials are trying to prepare the population, primarily by stressing the importance of vaccinations.
“They need to get it now," Clark County Health Officer Eric Yazel said. "We had a weird little trickle of cases in early August, which is unusual. In the last 10 days, we’ve seen some activity out here.”
The country's deadliest flu season in four decades came in 2017-2018, when nearly 1 million people were hospitalized and 79,400 died. That year, 336 Hoosiers succumbed to the flu.
Though the 2018-2019 season was not as deadly, with 61,200 national deaths and 113 in Indiana, it was the longest in a decade, stretching 21 weeks.
So far this season, there have been just two deaths reported in the state, but Yazel warned that some data shows that rougher waters could be ahead.
“Some of the early data we get looks like this year may be a bad one as well just from sheer volume," he said. "Some of the things they use as early indicators are numbers from up in the far northwest of the continent or Australia. We’re preparing for that.”
According to Floyd County Health Officer Dr. Tom Harris, cases of infection should become more frequent around Thanksgiving and the weeks that follow. He said labeling particular flu seasons as worse than others is difficult. Instead, he's focused on each individual who gets sick and their circumstances.
“If you’ve had the flu, that’s the worst season for you," Harris said. "To a great extent, it’s an avoidable illness with vaccine. When people rationalize why they don't need to get [the vaccine], they're putting themselves and others at risk. You can lose income, you can be out of school for a while. Every year is a bad year if you have the flu."
Those 65 years old and up along with young children are the most at-risk populations, both Harris and Yazel said. Another particular high-risk group are individuals with conditions affecting their immune system.
Just because average young and middle-aged adults — those in their 20s, 30s and 40s — aren't necessarily the highest-risk population doesn't mean they shouldn't be cautious and get vaccinated, the officials added.
"If every adult gets vaccinated, that’s one less person to transmit the disease," Harris said. "There are very few people who aren’t in contact with a child or an elderly person during the course of a week. On top of that, it keeps you from getting the flu. Nobody wants to get the flu. We recommend it for selfish reasons, but also to prevent transmission.”
The rate of flu vaccinations in the general population has held steady since the late 1980s. Those in the medical profession have been getting the shot at higher rates, however, as many hospitals have made it mandatory for employees.
Yazel said each year is a "waxing and waning" situation, as more people tend to get shots after bad flu seasons. While there are always vocal anti-vaccination groups on social media, he said that proven evidence tends to rise above the conspiracies.
"You’ll see a lot of push with anti-vax, and it almost seems like there's been a backlash against them," Yazel said. "Our numbers have been up, which means good information is getting out and people are taking care of themselves.”