The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicted that this year’s flu will be the worst in almost 10 years.
Flu season usually begins in the fall and continues into the winter. The exact reason for the spread of the virus from October to May is unclear.
Typically between five and 20 percent of Americans contract the virus during the course of each year’s flu season. On average, 200,000 people are hospitalized annually and 3,000 to 50,000 die from the illness. Generally children under five years of age and adults over 65 are the highest-risk patients for flu.
To prevent the spread of flu, doctors recommend yearly vaccinations for people of all ages. At its most effective, the vaccine reduces the risk of contracting the flu by 60 percent.
This year’s flu virus is starkly different from that of other seasons, mostly because it has persisted across the United States at a severe level for three weeks.
“We often see different parts of the country ‘light up’ at different times, but for the past three weeks, the entire country has been experiencing lots of flu, all at the same time,” said Dan Jernigan, the director of the Influenza Division in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, in a press release.
Notably, in California and on the West Coast, the amount of hospitalizations from this flu season is four times the amount from the 2014-2015 flu season. Minnesota had twice as many people hospitalized, and New York City is beginning to report high levels of hospitalization.
According to Jernigan, the number of patients going to their doctor showing signs of influenza-like symptoms has risen to 6.6 percent, the highest level of influenza-related visits to a doctor since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, when it peaked at 7.7 percent.
The current rate of hospitalizations is 41.9 per 100,000. Jernigan also noted that the rate of hospitalization has been higher among baby boomers, those between 50 and 64, and young children than it has been in past years.
“Baby boomers have higher [hospitalization] rates than [their] grandchildren right now,” Jernigan said.
Typically those over 65 represent the majority of those hospitalized. Jernigan linked baby boomers’ hospital admissions to their skipping out on flu shots. It is estimated that only 41 percent of this cohort received their shots.
“Those folks are the ones that would really benefit from having higher vaccination coverage,” Jernigan said. “These are folks that are at the peak of their careers a lot of times. They are managing a lot of the businesses and so them missing work because of the flu is something that can impact not only them and their families, but also those that are in the businesses that they work for.”
The latest reports reveal that 37 children have died over the course of this flu season.
“We expect there will be more reports of pediatric deaths, similar to what have seen in more severe seasons,” Jernigan said.
Many, including Jernigan, have blamed the H3N2 strain of influenza for this year’s severity. H3N2 has been responsible for previous bad seasons such as 1997-1998 and 2003-2004.
“In seasons where H3N2 is the main cause of influenza, we see more cases, more visits to the doctor, more hospitalizations and more deaths, especially among older people,” Jernigan said.
Scientists and physicians predict that the final tallies for this year’s season will closely resemble those of the 2014-2015 season. In that year, 34 million Americans got the flu, 710,000 were hospitalized and about 56,000 died.
Jernigan suspected that the method of using eggs to manufacture the vaccine may to be blamed for its ineffectiveness this year. Despite this he still recommends getting a flu vaccine if you haven’t already. He also recommended taking everyday precautions to avoid catching the virus, like washing your hands, covering your cough if you’re sick and staying home from work or school to prevent spreading the flu to others.