Influenza-related hospitalizations among elderly Americans this season are at the highest level on record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.
The CDC warned the 2014-15 flu season would be a bad one and new numbers from the agency’s weekly FluView report show that the elderly, in particular, are spending more time in the hospital because of it. About 198 out of every 100,000 people 65 and older have been hospitalized this season with a flu-related illness — the highest level since the CDC started tracking that statistic. A total of 86,000 elderly have been hospitalized.
Pediatric flu deaths are also higher than usual this season. At least 61 U.S. children have died of influenza-related complications this year, outpacing the number of pediatric flu fatalities marked at this point last year — 28 — and at this point two years ago — 37. Overall, deaths from flu and pneumonia “remain at epidemic levels,” the CDC said.
This year, flu season hit earlier than usual. An average season lasts about 13 weeks. This season is expected to go longer and extract a larger toll due to that early start. In all, there have been 11,077 laboratory-confirmed flu hospitalizations.
The CDC said so far in the 2014-15 flu season, the H3N2 strain has been the most dominant — a concerning trend. The three most deadly flu seasons in the past 11 years — 2012-13, 2007-08 and 2003-04 — each featured H3N2 as the dominant strains. H3N2 viruses are characterized as “moderately severe” by the CDC.
Adding to the problem is that this year’s flu vaccine doesn’t fully cover H3N2. Earlier this month, the CDC said this season’s vaccine had a 23 percent efficacy rate, compared to 51 percent the year before.
Each year’s flu vaccine is created to stop the three or four most common strains of the virus currently circulating. Since the 2014-15 vaccine was created, the dominant H3N2 variant changed slightly, or “drifted.” The vaccine will still protect against H3N2 to some degree, and it could protect against strains that become dominant later in the season, the CDC says.
Those at high risk for serious complications from the virus are children younger than 5 years old, adults over the age of 65, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions. The CDC recommends these high-risk patients should immediately take antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza if flu symptoms appear, and not wait for lab tests to confirm flu infection.