This flu season has been one of the worst in recent memory. While health professionals still recommend getting a flu vaccination, it's also well known that this year's shot is only about 25% effective. In the latest CDC bulletin on influenza, there were two main points that the agency wanted to make.
The first is that the geography of the flu is basically everywhere. While usually, influenza spreads across different parts of the country in waves. This year, 49 out of the 50 states (Hawaii is the outlier, with only regional reports of flu) are reporting "widespread" flu activity. While experts say that it's more common to have areas of the country "light up" in different areas in a progression from spot to spot, what's happening now is as if a blanket of illness is covering most of the country. The map of flu activity is nearly fully colored in, with almost no area untouched by widespread illness.
The other factor that is that It's been this way for the past three weeks, with each week consecutively showing an increase in cases. For nearly the entire country to be this affected by flu, with cases increasing steadily is highly unusual. The incidence of influenza has not been this bad since the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. The CDC said that for the most recent week, 6.6% of people being seen at emergency departments and urgent care health facilities are there for flu-like symptoms. In 2009 the figures for the H1N1 epidemic peaked at 7.7% of visits to ERs and urgent care clinics.
Some of the increase is likely the result of winter holidays. Between increased travel, more social events and people spending more time indoors due to the colder weather a spike in cases can be expected. It's impacting all age groups, but the one group of patients that is most vulnerable are children. Because many are now back in school, the germs are all being spread in the close contact of classrooms. Once a child comes home with the flu, the rest of the family is at risk, as are the staff and faculty who work in schools. So far, 37 children have died from influenza.
To look at the rate of flu deaths, the CDC tracks death certificates that list influenza or pneumonia as the cause of death. There was a 9.1% increase in those deaths this week. In 2012-2013 and 2014-2015 the death rate from H3N2 peaked at 11.1% and 10.8% respectively, so this season is fast approaching record numbers. While it's not at a pandemic level yet, the flu season is nine weeks so far. Some seasons have gone for as many as 20 weeks, and if the current pace of new cases continues, the death toll could rise.
Experts advise that in addition to getting a flu shot, handwashing and wiping down surfaces is crucial to prevention. If you have a cough, body aches, or fever, you're advised to see a doctor immediately and limit contact with others. Staying hydrated is essential as well, and wearing layers in cold weather. While bundling up won't necessarily prevent germs, the less exposed skin to collect flu droplets, the better.