Get out plenty of soap for hand washing. Avoid doorknobs and communal keyboards. That flu shot might not be as effective as usual.
If the flu season experience in Australia is any example, and it usually is, the 2017 flu vaccine will be just 10 percent effective against one of the dominant and the most virulent forms of influenza, H3N2.
What happens in Australia’s flu season is often a precursor to what will happen in the United States, said Dr. Tom Safranek, Nebraska’s state epidemiologist.
Australia saw a record level of flu during its flu season, and the vaccine was only 10 percent effective against the dominant strain.
“We are all preparing for that scenario," Safranek said in a Friday telephone interview.
It also looks like the flu season is beginning early in the United States. According to the state’s latest weekly data, Nebraska has five times as many flu cases as it did during the same week a year ago, Safranek said.
A year ago, the state had 20 positive tests during the last week of November. This year it had 120. That’s a pretty dramatic difference, he said.
Lancaster County is also seeing a potentially early start to the flu season. By early December last year, there were no confirmed cases of influenza in the county. This year there have been nine. And influenza H3 is the primary virus being identified locally, according to the county flu report released Friday afternoon.
Safranek is worried about having the flu season take flight during the Christmas holiday, when many people are partying and traveling, spreading good cheer and germs.
“We could have a lot of compromised people not having a Merry Christmas when it has gotten to this level this early,” he said.
Safranek said he wouldn’t be surprised to see the flu peak in early-to-mid January, which is quite early.
But he admits his is a somewhat cloudy crystal ball, based mostly on his years of experience as the state epidemiologist.
And predicting a flu season is kind of like predicting the weather. It’s an educated guess that isn’t always completely accurate.
Last year’s flu vaccine was 40 percent effective, which meant it reduced your chance of getting the flu by 40 percent, Safranek said. The vaccine is never bulletproof, but it is still the best way of protecting yourself against getting influenza.
In Australia, the vaccine was not very effective against the H3N2 strain, but was effective against other strains. So Safranek still recommends getting a flu shot.
Some protection is better than none, he said.
And he encourages people to pay attention to the other behavior that can help protect yourself and others.
If you're getting the flu, don’t expose yourself to other people. Stay home; stay away from the party, he says.
To protect yourself, wash your hands. Watch out for places that people may leave the virus — doorknobs, keyboards.
“But you have to balance being a total paranoid,” he said. “Don’t get like Jack Nicholson (Melvin Udall) in ‘As Good As It Gets,’ who throws away each bar of soap after he uses it,” said Safranek.
"You have to use your head. If you see people coughing and sneezing, keep your distance. If you are a politician and have to work a room, shaking hands, don’t touch your face."