CDC Warns of Early, Tough Flu Season
Dec. 04--Saying that a jump in suspected flu cases in Alabama and four other Southern states signifies the earliest start to the flu season in nearly a decade, health officials fear this flu season could be particularly bad.
Health officials on Monday also said they are worried that the primary strain of flu circulating now tends to make people sicker than other types and is particularly hard on the elderly.
"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn't happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations also are rising earlier than usual, and there already have been two deaths among children.
Donna Edwards, assistant nurse manager at Baptist Medical Center East, said the hospital's emergency department has been seeing an increase in cases of people coming in with flu-like symptoms since about the weekend before Thanksgiving.
"We are seeing a lot of kids with the flu," she said.
Children are one of the Alabama Department of Public Health's major fears -- in fact the ADPH is particularly concerned about Alabamians younger than 65 because they tend to get flu shots less than their counterparts in the rest of the country.
Dr. Mary McIntyre, assistant state health officer for disease control and prevention, said just because reports show there are more early flu cases this year, doesn't mean it will be a particularly bad flu season.
She said the flu season can start earlier than usual, but peak earlier so that it's no worse than other seasons. The fear, she added, is that the season will begin early and then just keep going, making for a much longer than usual flu season.
"There are a number of things that will determine whether this flu season will be a really bad one," she said. "The best way to make sure that we don't have a really bad flu season is for people to go get their shots.
"But Alabamians tend to have lower immunization rates for younger ages. Our 65-and-older population pretty much compares to the nation as a whole. But we need to encourage people six months of age and older to get the flu shot."
McIntyre said there is some good news about the flu virus, and it makes getting immunized all the more important.
"What we have been able to see from what has been reported and the testing that has been done is that the flu shot that we are offering this season should cover people for the strain of flu that is actually being reported," she said. "We are not seeing anything that's not being covered by what is in the shot.
"So we are telling people who have not yet been vaccinated that it is not too late, and asking them to contact their providers and get immunized."
Edwards said the other major things to prevent a bad flu season are that people need to wash their hands often and need to cover their mouths when they cough.
While the early launch for the flu season doesn't mean it will be a bad one, history isn't good.
The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years. On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC, but in 2003-2004 there were more than 48,000 deaths.
The dominant type of flu back then was the same one seen this year.
The bright side is that not only is the vaccine better matched to the strain of flu than it was in 2003-04, but that there is more of it and more people are using it.
Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.
A strain of swine flu that hit in 2009 caused a wave of cases in the spring and then again in the early fall. But that was considered a unique type of flu, distinct from the conventional strains that circulate every year.
Associated Press writer Mike Stobbe contributed to this report
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