States report uptick in patients with flu symptoms

December 27, 2018 GMT

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reporting that the flu season is well underway, with several states recording a high number of cases and at least seven child deaths across the country.

It is the first time the flu activity has passed the threshold of “regular” activity, with more than 2.2 percent of the U.S. population entering medical facilities with flu-like symptoms. The CDC’s most recent data measured 2.7 percent of people reporting flu symptoms.

Of the two states with the highest levels of flu-like disease, Colorado has reported almost 400 hospitalizations and Georgia almost 260, since cases first appeared in September.

Moderate flu activity is creeping higher in New York City and nine states Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, South Carolina and Virginia.

“We are at the point of starting to see increased flu activity,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

It’s too early to tell if this year’s flu season will match the record devastation of 2017-2018, in which about 79,000 people died, including 185 children, and nearly 1 million were hospitalized.

“Compared to last year, it’s completely impossible to make any predictions about what kind of flu season we’re going to have,” Dr. Fauci said.

The CDC provides weekly updates on flu surveillance from hundreds of sites across the country, monitoring the number of illnesses and strains of flu circulating. About 90 percent of tested flu cases were confirmed as influenza A, the vast majority the specific strain of H1N1pdm09. About 10 percent of flu cases this year are influenza B.

While influenza A in general is a more severe and serious strain of the virus, the worst actor is the H3N2 strain, which was responsible for most of illnesses and deaths last year. The CDC is monitoring a rising number of H3N2 cases, particularly in the Southeast.

All three influenza strains were detected among the seven children who have died from flu this season.

Dr. Fauci said it’s a good sign that Australia, which goes through flu season opposite to the Northern Hemisphere, mostly had cases of H1N1.

“It’s of interest but we have to be careful,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily predict that we’re going to have a light season.”

Health officials are heartened by an increase in vaccination rates across all age groups, with 166 million doses distributed this year, the highest number compared to the same time in all five previous seasons, according to the CDC.

About 45 percent of children age 6 months to 17 years old, and a similar percentage of adults age 18 and over, have received their flu vaccine this year. Both groups saw an increase of about 38 percent compared to the same time last year.

“It’s very important and helpful to see the rate is higher than in previous years,” said Dr. Flor Muoz, an infectious disease specialist at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Usually about one-third of the population that needs to be vaccinated does so by the early days of flu season, Dr. Muoz said. Those who need vaccinations include children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

“Flu is unpredictable. We don’t know how severe this season is going to be, so there’s definitely still time for children or anyone that needs to get their flu vaccine to get it,” she said.

It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to be effective. About 80 percent of pediatric deaths during the 2017/18 flu season occurred in unvaccinated children, and a high percentage of flu vaccines only occurred toward the end of the season.

In the previous flu season, the illness became widespread around mid-January, with a rapid increase in pediatric flu deaths that shocked health officials and at times led to school cancellations with so many children out sick.

The CDC estimates that the flu impacts American wallets to the tune of $4.6 billion each year, with costs related to hospital and doctors office visits and medications. Sickness causes employees to miss about 17 million workdays and costs about $7 billion a year in sick days and lost productivity.