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New treatment is no substitute for the flu vaccine

November 27, 2018 | UCI Health
woman in bed with flu

Just in time for the flu season, the first new antiviral flu treatment in nearly 20 years is on the market and promises to lessen the effects if taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Xofluza has been approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for otherwise healthy adults and children older than 12 with uncomplicated influenza. It works by stopping virus cells from dividing. Other antivirals like Tamiflu, which have been available for a few decades, work by blocking the virus from infecting other cells.

But it is no substitute for a flu vaccination, says Dr. Shruti Gohil, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection protection for UCI Health.

“For me, it doesn’t change the calculus on vaccination at all. The goal of immunization is quite different — it’s to prevent the illness all together.”

Antiviral is an alternative

But if you do come down with the flu, “it’s great to have another treatment alternative — especially one that works in a different way — if resistance to the currently available drugs develops,” says Gohil, who is also an assistant professor of infectious diseases at UCI School of Medicine.

“When patients take either drug within 48 hours of feeling sick, it can lessen their symptoms and shorten the time they feel sick. One advantage of Xofluza is that it works with a single dose, while you need twice daily doses of Tamiflu for five days.”

However, the drug is currently recommended only for healthy adults and teens, she says.

“So far, Xofluza has only been tested in healthy populations, so we don’t know how it might work in young children, the elderly or patients with diseases that put them at high risk for complications.”

Who should be vaccinated?

Gohil recommends flu shots for everyone to lessen the spread of the virus. But immunizations are a must for:

  • People age 65 and older
  • Children under age 12
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone whose immune system is compromised
  • Anyone who has lung or heart disease, diabetes or other comorbidities, such as cancer

That’s because influenza can be deadly. The 2017-2018 flu season claimed 24 lives, including three children, none of whom had been vaccinated, according to the Orange County Health Care Agency.

“Anyone who looks at past flu epidemics will be humbled by the number of people who have suffered,” Gohil says.

“While most who got a severe case of flu were those at high risk, last year we had a few healthy people in Orange County get very sick and even die from the flu. So it is important for everyone to get vaccinated. It’s good to remember that you live in a community where you can spread diseases, a community where all of us depend on each other being healthy and vaccinated.”

Vaccine a better match than last year’s

The flu season typically gets underway in October and November and can continue through April. It has arrived in Southern California in small numbers so far, says Gohil, who expects it will most likely reach its peak between January and February.

It’s hard to predict how bad each flu season will be or which strains will hit during a given year. But Gohil and other infectious disease experts believe this year’s flu vaccine is a better match to the prevailing virus than last year’s was.

“There’s reason to believe we’re closer to a higher rate of efficacy this year based on the experience so far with the vaccine in Australia,” she says.

If you do begin to experience signs of the flu — fever over 100.4 F, aching muscles, chills and sweats, headache, a dry cough, fatigue and weakness, nasal congestion and sore throat — that’s the time to talk with your healthcare provider about treatments like Xofluza or Tamiflu.

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