Flu season has officially arrived in the United States, and the proportion of deaths related to flu infections have reached epidemic threshold, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To reach an epidemic threshold, according to the CDC, flu and pneumonia deaths must account for 6.8 percent of the total nationwide fatalities. During the 51st week of the year (ending Dec. 20), local and state health officials reported 837 flu and pneumonia deaths out of the 12,358 total, just meeting the agency’s epidemic-threshold rating.
This year, there have been 15 pediatric deaths from the virus. Children under the age of 5 and seniors are more likely to be hospitalized with the flu than any other age group, the CDC noted in its latest report. And this trend is likely to continue as winter goes on.
The report also noted that there have been 2,643 lab-confirmed flu hospitalizations for this flu season so far, with an overall hospitalization rate of 9.7 per 100,000 population. The highest hospitalization rates occur in senior citizens (people over 65 years old) at 38.3 per 100,000 population, as well as very small children (ages zero to four), at 13.4 hospitalizations per 100,000 population.
Flu can also lead to deadly pneumonia in children, adults older than 65 and those with compromised immune systems, which is why the CDC recommends any individual in those categories get the pneumococcal vaccine as well as a flu shot every year.
To date, 36 U.S. states report widespread flu activity, with more than half the country (28 states plus Puerto Rico) reporting moderate to high levels of activity.
The majority strain circulating is still H3N2. Earlier this year, CDC officials warned this year’s formulation of the vaccine might be less effective in fighting H3N2, due to a viral mutation. Still, a third of the H3N2 samples tested last week matched with the strain contained in this year’s flu shot, the report said, suggesting the vaccine is still an effective method in fighting the flu. Furthermore, the vaccine will likely offer protection against other flu viruses that may become more common later in the season.
H3 viruses are known to be particularly dangerous, CDC Director Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., said at a press conference earlier this year. “We know that in seasons when H3 viruses predominant, we tend to have seasons that are the worst flu years, with more hospitalizations from flu and more deaths from the flu,” he said.
Dr. Frieden also emphasized the importance of early treatment with antiviral medications as soon as flu symptoms begin. “It’s especially important to get antiviral medicines quickly if you have flu,” he said. “They work best when you start them within two days of the beginning of flu symptoms, and we strongly recommend that if doctors suspect the flu in someone who may be severely ill from the flu, they don’t wait for the results of a flu test before starting antivirals.”