U.S. flu season heads toward epidemic
The number of Americans dying from influenza and pneumonia has hit epidemic levels this winter as the nation faces the second-highest influenza rates since swine flu swept the country in 2009.
While the current flu season isn’t over, all signs point toward a bad year, said Michael Jhung, a medical officer in the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division. The main strain circulating through the U.S. is known for causing serious disease, and the vaccine health officials urge Americans to get every year isn’t well matched to the actual virus that started appearing in recent weeks, he said.
“Of the measures that CDC keeps track of for influenza activity, they are all elevated and they are all increasing,” Jhung said. “There are some suggestions right now that this season will be a severe season.”
For the week ended Dec. 20, 6.8 percent of all deaths reported through a CDC monitoring system were attributed to influenza or pneumonia, the agency’s threshold for an epidemic. That’s a steep increase from rates that trended well below normal during the fall and early winter. Already 15 children have died this season from the flu, which is widespread in 36 states. No states are free of the virus, with only California and Hawaii reporting sporadic outbreaks.
That makes Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu even more important than in years past. People who are most vulnerable to complications from the virus should get prompt treatment with Tamiflu if they start showing symptoms, said Pritish Tosh, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
The medicine can ease symptoms and speed recovery, provided it’s taken shortly after symptoms start, he said. High-risk individuals include the elderly and the very young, plus those with asthma, other lung conditions, pregnant women and anyone with a compromised immune system.
“We know influenza in general causes a lot of problems,” said Tosh, a member of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group. “Tens of thousands of Americans will die each year from influenza. The H3N2 strain we are seeing this year tends to cause more severe epidemics.”
Some areas of the U.S. are experiencing spot shortages of Tamiflu, making patients go from one pharmacy to the next to find it. The American Society of Health-System Pharmacists placed Tamiflu on its shortage list on Dec. 22.
Genentech, the Roche unit that makes the drug, anticipates having ample supply of Tamiflu this flu season, though spot shortages may occur in local areas, said Austine Graff, a company spokeswoman, in an e-mail. The company is expediting the delivery of Tamiflu to local pharmacies that are experiencing increased demand, she said.
“Flu activity is unpredictable and, as the manufacturer of Tamiflu, we do our best each season to anticipate flu spikes and work with our network of national distributors and pharmacies to provide Tamiflu to those areas of the country that need it most,” Graff said.
The CDC and infectious disease specialists are still urging unvaccinated Americans to get the immunization, as it provides excellent protection against some strains of the disease and may lessen the damage from the most widely circulating virus by bolstering the immune system.
Those with the disease should practice good respiratory etiquette, including staying home from school or work and covering a cough, Tosh said. In the end, it’s sometimes difficult to avoid, he said, coughing.
“As someone who is very interested in influenza, despite getting the vaccine and employing a lot of hand hygiene, I got it this year,” he said.
Most people who get the flu fully recover. “Most healthy people who get influenza will do fine, if they get plenty of fluids and plenty of rest,” Tosh said.