Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Flu season is underway, but it's not too late to get vaccinated against the pesky bug, experts say.
With some 10 million Americans already sickened by the virus, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2019-20 flu season already has proved challenging for sufferers and their healthcare providers.
Given that various strains of the virus might continue to circulate well into March, if not April, an ounce of prevention is the best approach for people to protect themselves and their loved ones, experts say.
"It's absolutely not too late to get the flu shot," Sam Torbati, co-chair and medical director of the Ruth and Harry Roman Emergency Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, told UPI.
"Over the past week, here in Los Angeles, we've seen a huge bump in flu cases, in young and old patients alike. And we know that nationally, the flu is placing a huge strain on the healthcare system."
The current flu season already has had a significant impact in part because it started earlier than expected, Torbati noted.
But the season is also becoming more severe, according the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The estimated number of flu cases across the country jumped from 6.8 million to 9.7 million in the weekly report released last Friday, which covered the seven days ending Jan. 4.
The CDC has urged those who haven't already done so to get the flu shot. The vaccine is typically available at little or no charge at pharmacies, clinics and doctors' offices across the country.
It's too soon to know just how effective this year's vaccine has been at preventing the flu. The vaccines are developed annually based on projections from epidemiologists about which strains of the virus will circulate during a given year. Over the past decade, analysis has shown the shot has reduced hospitalizations caused by the flu by between 40 and 60 percent each year.
"The CDC has put out that there have been four circulating strains so far this flu season, and two are highly similar to the strains in the vaccine," Richard T. Ellison, a professor of infectious diseases and immunology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, told UPI.
He added that lab results to date suggest that "there is some variation between the vaccine and circulating virus" for the other two strains, which isn't unusual. Based on what officials know about circulating strains at this point, he said, it's likely that this flu season will "end up somewhere in the middle -- neither a really good or really bad year."
The good news is that Ellison and others don't expect the 2019-20 flu season to have a second "wave," or flurry of cases as it draws to a close. According to Ellison, in past flu seasons, there has been "an influenza A wave in December and January" followed by a second wave of influenza B strains in February or March.
Given that 2019-20 started with a wave of influenza B strains early, experts expect that the season will likely feature only one wave, which should make the vaccine all the more effective. Even those who do get sick after getting vaccinated -- which has been widely reported each year -- generally have less severe cases of the flu, studies indicate.
Plus, Torbati noted, the vaccine is safe for the vast majority of people, with no serious side effects. Older versions were problematic for people with egg allergies, but this is no longer the case.
"Really, when you think about it, why would you want to risk missing a week of life because you're sick?" he asked rhetorically. "Or put your children or elderly loved ones at risk of getting sick? Even if you're healthy, not getting the flu shot is just not smart."