The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is aware of this year’s flu epidemic and held a press conference last week with their Flu experts to update the public on the current flu statistics and outlook.
Dr. Dan Jernigan, Director of the influenza division in CDC’s national center for immunization and respiratory diseases hosted the conference, starting out by saying it has been a tough flu season so far this year.
He goes on to give exact details about why this year’s flu seems to be worse than normal.
“Most people with influenza are being infected with the H3N2 influenza virus. And in seasons where H3N2 is the main cause of influenza, we see more cases, more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations, and more deaths, especially among older people.”
The 2014-15 season was predominated by the H3N2 strain as well, and was also categorized as a high severity season.
While H3N2 continues to predominate, other flu viruses are contributing to the season. Some states are actually seeing more H1N1 than other states, and there have been reports of influenza B outbreaks in nursing homes, which is less common for this time of year.
Two notable characteristics of flu this season is that flu activity became widespread within almost all states and jurisdictions at the same time, and that flu activity has now stayed at the same level for 3 weeks in a row, with 49 states reporting widespread activity, each week, for 3 weeks.
“We often see different parts of the country “light up” at different times, but for the past 3 weeks, the entire country has been experiencing lots of flu, all at the same time,” Dr. Jernigan said.
The number of people going in to see a doctor for influenza-like-illness increased last week to 6.6%; that means that 6.6% of all people coming into the clinics and emergency departments had influenza-like illness. This is the highest level of activity recorded since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which peaked at 7.7%.
“The rapid increase in cases we have been seeing after the winter holidays and it is among all ages, but is higher in children. So, it looks like a big part of the later January activity is flu transmission from kids returning to school.”
Flu activity has been elevated for 9 consecutive weeks so far this season. To put that into perspective, the average duration of a flu season in the past 5 seasons has been around 16 weeks, with the longest being 20 weeks. So, by this measure, we are about halfway there this season. That means there is likely several more weeks of flu to go.
Although the most “at risk” patients are elderly or those with weakened immune systems, as of last week, the CDC was notified of 7 more pediatric flu-related deaths, bringing the total number of flu deaths in children to 37 this season, and Dr. Jernigan expects the number will still rise.
“Those who are at high risk that we recommend to get treated if they get sick with the flu are the very young the very old the pregnant women and those with underlying illnesses like heart conditions and lung problems. In addition, otherwise healthy people can have influenza that goes on to more severe illness, and can have symptoms like shortness of breath and difficulty breathing, chest pain, very high and persistent fevers, and ear pain. Those are the things that should lead parents or the individual to go see there doctor where they may be prescribed antiviral drugs.”
However, there has been some information out there about antiviral shortages. Some manufactures are reporting delays in filling orders; the CDC is aware of spot shortages of antiviral drugs specifically for Alsotamiver suspension and for generic Alsotamavir capsules. The shortages are happening in some places where there is high influenza activity.
While the CDC is currently working with manufacturers to address any existing gaps in the market, they still recommend getting the flu vaccine even if it’s not particularly effective against the H3N2 virus.
“For prevention, CDC is still recommending getting a flu shot. While getting a vaccine earlier in the season is better, there is still a lot of the season to go and vaccination now could still provide some benefit.”