The flu season has started

Data released by the health ministry shows that the 2017-2018 flu season has begun. All parties concerned — the national and local governments, medical institutions and individuals — need to take preventive measures in earnest to help prevent the spread of the contagious respiratory disease. As part of such efforts, the health ministry should see to it that hospitals and clinics can secure all the flu vaccine they need since some of them have complained that it has been in short supply.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, some 5,000 medical institutions that are designated monitors of the situation reported visits by 7,280 people suffering from influenza from Nov. 20 to 26. The average of 1.47 patients per medical institution over the week exceeded the criterion for declaring the official start of the flu season, which is an average of one patient per medical institution. It is estimated that about 70,000 people visited hospitals and clinics nationwide for flu treatment during the same period, a significant increase over the estimated 40,000 people who had sought medical care the previous week.

Although this year’s season began a week later than in 2016, when the start of the flu season was the second earliest since the ministry began collecting data in 1999, it is still a little earlier than average. The Nov. 20-26 period saw 94 people hospitalized for influenza at designated hospitals. Elderly people accounted for a large portion of the number, with 44 patients in their 70s and 80s. Since the fatality risk is higher for elderly patients, medical and welfare facilities need to take extra care to prevent the influx of the flu into their premises. If inpatients or residents at such facilities contract the flu, such facilities must take every possible step to contain the spread of the virus.

The start of this flu season has been marked by concern over a possible shortage of vaccine due to confusion that occurred during the decision-making process for vaccine production. The health ministry at first decided to produce a type of vaccine that it thought would be more effective against the flu than the type that was used in the last flu season. After drugmakers found that they could not produce the new type of vaccine as efficiently as they had anticipated, a decision was eventually made to produce the same kind of vaccine as last season. That led to a delay in the start of vaccine production.

Although the pace of production appears to be picking up, the projected total supply will be still be slightly short of the amount that was actually used last season. As of September, the projected supply was 25.28 million vials — 1.14 million less than the 26.42 million believed to have been used last season. One vial of vaccine is enough for two shots. While the gap narrowed to 80,000 vials as of October, a shortage of vaccine may arise as early as this month when large numbers of people seek vaccinations. In an effort to avoid a shortage, the health ministry has instructed medical institutions in principle to give just one shot to people age 13 or older, as opposed to the ministry’s usual recommended amount of one or two shots for this age group.

Whether a vaccine shortage occurs, it’s vital that people have a correct understanding of the flu vaccine. The vaccine may be effective in preventing flu symptoms from becoming serious enough to cause grave conditions like pneumonia, but it will not necessarily prevent an occurrence of the symptoms. The best defense against the flu is for people to take daily measures to prevent infection, such as washing their hands thoroughly and frequently with soap — especially when they return home — and wearing face masks when going out, especially in crowded areas. People who have contracted the flu virus and are coughing or sneezing should strive to wear face masks to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Health ministry data show that of the types of flu virus detected in the immediate past five weeks, the one that caused a pandemic in 2009 is the most prevalent. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, in its National Pandemic Influenza Plan update released in June, says that this type of virus has the potential to spread rapidly worldwide. Although the update says the precise impact of a future pandemic is unpredictable, its worst-case scenario estimates the number of Americans who would become infected with the virus at 96 million and the number of deaths at 1.93 million. Both the national and local governments need to make advance preparations to build an effective network of cooperation involving not only medical institutions but also other organizations to cope with a possible pandemic.