Mar 21st, 2018 | By: Gisele Grayson and Rob Stein, npr.org
This year’s severe flu season is still pummeling the country from coast to coast. The respiratory illness appears to be unusually bad for baby boomers, federal health officials reported Friday.
While the flu appears to have started to ebb in some parts of the country, such as California, flu activity has remained widespread in 49 states for three weeks in a row. And that’s unusual.
“It’s been a tough flu season so far,” says Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Flu is still happening all over the United States.”
After an early start, the country is about nine weeks into this nasty flu season and could be only about halfway through, Jernigan says.
As a result, the percentage of people seeking medical treatment for the flu and the rates at which they are ending up in the hospital and dying are still rising.
The flu is hitting the 65-and-over age group hardest, but the next-hardest hit is the 50-to-64 age group. Usually, children are the second-hardest hit.
The reason is unclear. Jernigan says it may be because the strains of the flu to which baby boomers were exposed when they were young are different from the strains circulating this year, so they have less immunity.
Children are being affected, though. Seven more pediatric deaths from the flu were reported this week, bringing that total to 37.
And, Jernigan says, the actual number could be twice as high. “It does take time to get [the death numbers] to the systems where they’re collected,” he says. “Sometimes, tragically, children die outside of the hospitals” so there may be a delay in the CDC getting the numbers from coroners of medical examiners.
This year appears to be on track to be as severe as the 2014-15 flu season, when the main strain of flu circulating also was the H3N2 strains, which tends to cause more illnesses and deaths.
About 34 million Americans got the flu in 2014-15, including about 710,000 people who were hospitalized and about 56,000 who died, Jernigan said.
Most people who get the flu do get better. And antiviral drugs can help those who get the sickest.
As in previous weeks, the CDC advises people to get vaccinated, stay home if they are ill and go to the hospitals if symptoms are severe, especially in those who are at high risk: the very young, the very old, pregnant women and those with underlying illnesses.
Schools have closed in some parts of the country. “We know that every year schools close,” said Jernigan, but most of the time they close because students and teachers are sick, not in order to prevent transmission. CDC doesn’t have recommendations along these lines, saying local municipalities are the best to judge.