FRIDAY, Feb. 9, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- This year's dangerous flu season shows no sign of waning, and "may be on track to break some recent records."
That was the sobering assessment offered Friday by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Acting Director Dr. Anne Schuchat.
Flu activity across the country has reached new highs compared to other recent severe flu seasons, Schuchat said. For example:
- Levels of influenza-like illness across the country are as high as observed at the peak of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
- The current hospitalization rate is approaching the final rate seen at the end of the severe 2014-15 season.
- Middle-aged people are being stricken at nearly twice the rate seen in 2014-15, although health officials aren't sure why. The flu usually is hardest on the very young and the very old.
Unfortunately, the flu season probably won't start winding down anytime soon, Schuchat added.
For the past five years, the flu season has lasted between 11 and 20 weeks, she said.
"We're only at week 11 now, so we could potentially see several more weeks of increased flu activity," Schuchat said.
As of Feb. 3, a total of 48 states continued to experience widespread flu activity, according to the CDC's latest surveillance report. In Oregon and Hawaii, flu is occurring at a more limited regional level, rather than statewide.
Flu-linked hospitalization rates continue to rise -- from 51.5 per 100,000 people for the week ending Jan. 27 to 59.9 per 100,000 people for the week ending Feb. 3.
"Overall hospitalizations are now significantly higher than what we've seen for this time of year since our current tracking system began almost a decade ago, in 2010," Schuchat said.
Pediatric flu deaths also continue to rise, with 63 children now dead from the flu so far this season.
Cases of influenza-like activity also continued to increase, with 7.7 percent of patient visits related to flu-like illness during the week ending Feb. 3, up from 7.2 percent of visits the previous week.
"The previously recorded high for that was 7.6 percent for a non-pandemic year in 2003-2004," Schuchat said. "Influenza-like illness is now at the same level as the peak week of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic."
The CDC reports this week that 63 people out of every 100,000 between the ages of 50 and 64 have been hospitalized with the flu.
"In 2014-15, that number was 35.1 per 100,000. That was our most severe recent season, and we're quite a bit higher than that," Schuchat said.
Epidemiologists and virus experts don't have an explanation yet for why the flu this season has been worse than usual, Schuchat said.
The season has been dominated by the H3N2 flu strain, which usually is more virulent, but the virus itself doesn't seem to be much different from previous H3N2 strains.
"We're still characterizing this year's virus," Schuchat said. "This years' virus isn't new in terms of antigenic risk. Our virologists and others around the country are studying the virus to see whether there are other explanations for the more severe disease we're seeing."
Preventing flu with vaccination is the best way to avoid trouble, of course, but statistics released last week out of Canada suggest this season's vaccine is just 17 percent effective against the H3N2 strain.
Despite this, it's still recommended that people get the flu shot, if only to prevent them from getting the flu a second time after coming down with a case of the H3N2 virus, Schuchat said. She noted that the Canadian researchers estimated that the flu vaccine is 55 percent effective against influenza B viruses, which typically cause more infections late in the season.
Despite the severity of the season, the American Lung Association says there are things you can do to avoid being stricken by the virus.
"The flu is more than just 'a bad cold.' It's a serious respiratory illness that's easily spread from person to person, usually when the person with the flu coughs or sneezes," Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific advisor for the American Lung Association, told HealthDay.
"Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, weakness, aches and pains," Edelman said in a lung association news release. "If you have asthma or other lung diseases, you are at higher risk of developing complications from the flu."
There are a number of ways people can protect themselves and others. They include:
- Get a flu shot. Though this year's vaccine isn't a perfect match for the viruses in circulation, it's still the best way to protect against infection. And some protection is better than none. Flu season may not end until May. The flu shot will remain effective for roughly six months.
- Seek medical attention. People who develop flu-like symptoms should see a doctor right away. Antiviral medications such as Tamiflu and Relenza can help ease symptoms, but these drugs are most effective if taken within 48 hours of getting sick.
- Don't spread the misery. If you get the flu, take steps to prevent passing the infection to others. Sick people should cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Hands should be washed frequently. People should avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth, particularly if their hands aren't clean. Be sure to disinfect possibly contaminated surfaces and objects. Anyone with the flu should stay home and not go to work or school for about a week. Once flu symptoms appear, people are contagious for five to seven days.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about the flu.