The 2018 flu season is the most widespread on record since health officials started keeping track of the course of the virus in 2004.
Since the flu season began in October, 37 children have died in the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s possible we haven’t seen the peak of flu activity.
“Flu is still happening all over the United States,” Dan Jernigan, the director of the Influenza Division at the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a news briefing Friday, Jan. 26.
As of Jan. 20, the total of laboratory-confirmed U.S. cases of the flu was 86,527, but the actual number could be much higher because not everyone goes to the doctor with symptoms, and doctors don’t test every patient.
Influenza activity started early this season and remains widespread in almost every state. Jernigan said we could be only halfway through the season, which typically runs from late October until May.
Jernigan said this year has seen the highest level of activity recorded since the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, which forced several Jewish summer camps, including Camp Coleman in Cleveland, to cancel sessions because of outbreaks.
This flu season has been dominated by the H3N2 strain, which has been linked to more severe illnesses and is perhaps the most dangerous of the four common strains of influenza.
Typically, the two age groups hardest hit by the flu are adults over age 65 and children younger than 5. That’s true this year, but another group is getting hit harder than normal: baby boomers.
The hospitalization rate for flu in adults ages 50 to 64 is 44.2 per 100,000 people, second only to the rate for adults over the age of 65.
“Baby boomers have higher rates than their grandchildren right now,” Jernigan said.
The devastating effects of the flu are being felt in Georgia.
Physician Mitchell Blass of Georgia Infectious Diseases in Sandy Springs said the H3N2 strain of the flu is not as well covered by the flu vaccine. In Georgia, the number of hospitalizations for the flu exceeded 670 in the first three weeks of 2018, and there have been 25 deaths associated with the influenza virus in the state.
Of those deaths, 20 have been people 65 and older, and five have been people 51 to 64.
“We generally would expect to see far fewer influenza hospitalizations and deaths than we have thus far,” Blass said. “So we’re seeing increasing flu activity, we’re seeing more severe illness in individuals that acquire influenza, and we’re seeing more post-influenza complications right now.”
Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, the throat and sometimes the lungs. Deadly flu complications can occur weeks after the initial symptoms.
“One of the big things people have to remember is that complications of influenza generally occur within two to four weeks after experiencing the symptoms,” Blass said. “So if an individual experiences influenza like symptoms, then feels well for a period of days and becomes ill again, that is a very important time to visit a physician because that is when a secondary bacterial infection can complicate influenza and sometimes result in death.”
Blass, an Atlanta native, said you still can take steps to protect yourself against the flu this year, including:
- Get a flu vaccination.
- Be aware that influenza activity in Georgia is widespread.
- Avoid contact with infected people.
- Practice cough hygiene (don’t cough in the open, and use a tissue).
- Wash your hands often with soap and water.
- Stay away from people who are frail or ill if you’re feeling sick.
“If you have flulike symptoms, it’s not the time to visit your bubbe,” Blass said.
Although the flu vaccine is not as effective as in past seasons, health officials said it is still the best protection against the virus.
The CDC recommends the flu shot for everyone 6 months of age and older. The vaccination reduces the chance of illness and can lessen the severity of the symptoms if you do get sick.
“It’s still not too late to get vaccinated,” said Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the CDC. “If you think you have flu or if you are at a high risk for complications from flu, it is important to seek care early.”
This years appears on track to be at least as severe as the 2014-15 flu season, when the main strain was also H3N2. That year, 34 million Americans came down with the flu, about 710,000 were hospitalized, and 56,000 died.
Most Americans are not at serious risk from the flu, and antiviral drugs can help those who get the sickest.
“It’s not a time to panic,” Blass said. “Be aware that there are medicines out there to treat influenza symptoms as well as the illness itself.”