Flu sea­son is off to early start and it could be a bad one

But U.S. readi­ness is bet­ter than 2003, last time out­breaks started this soon.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Mike Stobbe As­so­ci­ated Press

Health of­fi­cials said sus­pected flu cases have jumped in five South­ern states, and the pri­mary strain tends to make peo­ple sicker than oth­ers.

NEW YORK — Flu sea­son in the United States is off to its ear­li­est start in nearly a decade — and it could be a bad one.

Health of­fi­cials Mon­day said sus­pected flu cases have jumped in five South­ern states, and the pri­mary strain cir­cu­lat­ing tends to make peo­ple sicker than other types. It is par­tic­u­larly hard on the el­derly.

“It looks like it’s shap­ing up to be a bad flu sea­son, but only time will tell,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ters for Disease Con­trol and Preven­tion.

The good news is that the na­tion seems fairly well-pre­pared, Frieden said. More than a third of Amer­i­cans have been vac­ci­nated, and the vac­cine for­mu­lated for this year is well-matched to the strains of the virus seen so far, CDC of­fi­cials said.

Higher-than-nor­mal re­ports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mis­sis­sippi, Ten­nessee and Texas. An uptick like this usu­ally doesn’t hap­pen un­til af­ter Christ­mas. Flu-re­lated hos­pi­tal­iza­tions are also ris­ing ear­lier than usual, and there have al­ready been two deaths in chil­dren.

Hos­pi­tals and ur­gent care cen­ters in north­ern Alabama have been bustling. “For­tu­nately, the cases have been rel­a­tively mild,” said Dr. Henry Wang, an emer­gency medicine physi­cian at the Univer­sity of Alabama at Birm­ing­ham.

Parts of Ge­or­gia have seen a boom in traf­fic, too. It’s not clear why the flu is show­ing up so early, or how long it will stay.

“My ad­vice is get the vac­cine now,” said Dr. James Stein­berg, an Emory Univer­sity in­fec­tious dis­eases spe­cial­ist in At­lanta.

The last time a con­ven­tional flu sea­son started this early was the win­ter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal sea­sons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths. The dom­i­nant type of flu back then was the same one seen this year.

One key dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now: In 2003-04, the vac­cine was poorly matched to the pre­dom­i­nant flu strain. Also, there’s more vac­cine now, and vac­ci­na­tion rates have risen for the gen­eral pub­lic and for key groups such as preg­nant women and health care work­ers.

An es­ti­mated 112 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have been vac­ci­nated so far, the CDC said. Flu vac­ci­na­tions are rec­om­mended for ev­ery­one 6 months or older.

On av­er­age, about 24,000 Amer­i­cans die each flu sea­son, ac­cord­ing to the CDC.

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