Seven more American children have died of the flu this week, bringing the death toll to 20 children and more than 85 adults this season, new CDC data show.
While this year’s epidemic is still shy of the devastating death toll seen in 2014/2015, officials warn the rate of cases is severe, and this season looks set to be the second-worst on record.
The deadly H3N2 virus is now widespread in more than 46 states, and the rate of cases is quadruple that of previous years, and hospitalizations have doubled in the last week as the outbreak reaches its ‘peak’.
Uniquely, this year baby boomers appear to be as vulnerable to the virus as the usual victims – infants and the elderly.
Unveiling the sobering statistics on Friday morning, CDC officials insisted it is not too late to get the flu shot, despite evidence that this year’s vaccine is only 30 percent effective against H3N2.
In fact, Dr Daniel Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division at the CDC, says the vaccine could be even more valuable now, since it is more effective against strains which are only just emerging now – including the H1N1 strain and various B viruses.
This graph, released on Friday by the CDC, shows the rate of hospitalizations per flu season. This year (in red) appears to be surging higher than the deadly 2014/15 year, but experts warn this could slope down in the same way
‘Flu seasons every year are bad but this season is on the severe side,’ Dr Jernigan said on Friday.
‘There’s still a long way to go, there’s at least 11 to 13 more weeks of flu to go, there are strains still to show up. B viruses show up later in the season, and we are also seeing H1N1 show up in states that have already had H3 activity. It’s therefore a good reason to get vaccinated if you haven’t.’
According to Dr Jernigan, the flu is not expected to be as devastating to the US as it was to Australia, where vaccination rates are lower and the general population is older.
Nonetheless, he said the CDC is concerned about controlling the virus which has sickened and killed both vulnerable (the very young and very old) as well as people with stronger immune systems in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
A pressing matter is the shortage of antiviral medications in states with particularly severe outbreaks – despite the fact that there is more medication available for pharmacies than ever before, since many generic versions have been approved this year.
Dr Jernigan said the issue largely boils down to pharmacies not being aware of all the manufacturers producing these medications, meaning their stock is more limited than necessary.
To conclude, he urged people to follow the ‘sound advice of your mother’: cover your mouth, wash your hands, and stay warm.
WHAT ARE THE FLU STRAINS HITTING THE US THIS YEAR?
There are many different types of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen, or are set to emerge, in America this winter.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year. In the past it was only commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time this winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just four confirmed cases.