Children and adults throughout the United States are grappling with nasty flu viruses that continue to spread. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released Friday, show influenza is widespread in 48 states. The agency received word of about 1,500 flu-related hospitalizations during the past week, bringing the total number of flu hospitalizations since October to more than 5,000. Half of those were adults ages 65 and older.
This flu season arrived a month earlier than usual and reached “epidemic” status early in 2013. The CDC doesn’t publish a running total of adult flu deaths, but on Friday it reported 29 flu-related deaths among children and teens—an increase of nine from the week before. So far, the death toll among youth this flu season hasn’t been nearly as severe as 2009-10, when 282 children and teens died during the swine flu epidemic.
Vaccine makers have distributed about 130 million flu vaccines this season, and although most have been used, more than half of Americans haven’t sought immunization. Last year only two out of five people got a flu vaccine. The current vaccine is 62 percent effective at preventing a severe case of flu. (But it will not protect against all influenza strains in circulation.) Doctors say it isn’t too late to get a flu shot this year, although you may have to check several locations since vaccine supplies are running low.
With the flu outbreak in full swing, some hospitals are taking tough measures against nurses who object to vaccinations for religious reasons or out of fear of side effects. Managers in four states have fired at least 15 nurses or hospital workers within the past two months for their refusal to get a flu shot.
On Wednesday the Food and Drug Administration gave approval to a new type of flu vaccine that uses a protein grown, with the help of a virus, inside insect egg cells. Since the vaccine isn’t grown in chicken eggs, as most others are, it may be useful to people with egg allergies. The product, called Flublok, should be available to patients later this flu season.
In New York last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a health emergency as the number of flu cases in the state approached 20,000. In New York City, the Manhattan Soccer Club asked its student players to replace high-fives with elbow bumps to prevent the spread of germs.
Since flu cases usually peak in midwinter, the outbreak is hopefully preparing to wind down. Influenza symptoms are similar to those of a cold, but more severe, often including a fever, chills, aches, and a sore throat. (Flu doesn’t normally produce an upset stomach or diarrhea, which may indicate another virus or infection, like norovirus.) If you believe yourself sick with flu, common-sense steps, like washing hands frequently and keeping a distance from others, can help prevent its spread.