Federal health experts said it would happen—and they were right. This year's flu season is turning out to be a whopper, with the number of people hospitalized and flu deaths on the rise in most parts of the country.
Last month public health experts said they suspected the flu would be more severe this year because cases started cropping up so early. In most seasons, flu picks up in January or February. But, according to data released this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of cases is already nearing the peak number seen during moderate flu seasons.
“While we can’t say for certain how severe this season will be, we can say that a lot of people are getting sick with influenza and we are getting reports of severe illness and hospitalizations,” Dr. Joe Bresee, chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch in CDC’s Influenza Division, said in a recent media briefing.
In the past four weeks, flu activity has risen sharply. The number of people seeking a healthcare provider for influenza-type illnesses increased from 2.8 percent to 5.6 percent during that time period. During last year's relatively mild flu season, by comparison, that number peaked at 2.2 percent. During the 2009 N1N1 pandemic, the number peaked at 7.7 percent.
Cases are expected to remain high for several weeks or months to come, the CDC warned. Hospitalization rates for flu right now stand at 8.1 per 100,000 people. “This is high for this time of year,” Brisee said. So far 18 children have died.
According to the CDC, 29 states and New York City are now reporting high levels of influenza-like-illness and another nine states are reporting moderate levels. Only 10 states are still reporting low or minimal activity: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.
You can find out how flu is impacting your own community at Flu Near You, an interactive website that allows users to submit weekly surveys that help to update a national map showing flu activity. The Flu Near You map currently shows an accurate picture of how influenza is tracking across the U.S.
This year's outbreak appears to be more severe than usual because the predominant strain in circulation is one that typically causes more severe illness, Dr. Sharon E. Orrange, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, told TakePart. The strain, influenza A (H3N2), has accounted for more than three-quarters of the flu cases reported.
"There are two reasons why flu is more severe this year. One is that flu broke a decade-long pattern by starting early this year," Orrange says. "When it starts early, it's just a longer time for exposure. The second thing is when it's a predominantly influenza A strain, those strains tend to be more virulent. It's a strain that can be quite nasty."
Meanwhile, people who did get a flu vaccine can feel good about that decision, since the vaccine protects against H3N2 and other strains. So far, 91 percent of the viruses analyzed by the CDC are like the viruses included in the vaccine. While it's possible to become ill with flu if you've been vaccinated, your risk is much lower, Orrange says.
It's not too late to get a vaccine, she says. It will take a couple of weeks for you to build up your immunity. But since this flu season could last for two months or more, it still makes sense to get the vaccine now. "The bummer about the flu shot is it takes two weeks to get full immunity," Orrange says. "But I gave six flu shots yesterday. I tell people, 'It's all we have.' Everyone should be getting it."
The CDC recommends that everyone— except very select groups of people—get an annual flu shot. Certain people, however, are at risk for serious consequences from the flu and benefit even more from being vaccinated. These include pregnant women, babies, and young children, the elderly, and people with other illnesses or immune-system disorders. "Anyone who doesn't have a robust immune system—whether due to illness or medication or age—they are going to struggle more when they're exposed to influenza," Orrange says. It's pretty easy to get a flu vaccine. Most drugstores offer the shot. You can also go to the Flu Near You website to locate a clinic or pharmacy.
For those who do become ill with the flu, see a doctor and ask about a prescription for an antiviral medical. Antivirals, such as Tamiflu, started as early as possible after becoming ill can help reduce the severity of the illness and lower the risk of complications.
Did you get vaccinated against the flu this year? If not, will you get a vaccine now? Why or why not?
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.