Just how severe is this flu season?

January 16, 2013 by Amanda Gardner, Healthday Reporter
Just how severe is this flu season?
It may be easing already in parts of the U.S., ramping up in others, experts say.

(HealthDay)—If the headlines are any indication, this year's flu season is turning out to be a whopper.

Boston and New York state have declared states of emergency, are running out in spots, and some emergency departments are overwhelmed. And the drug Tamiflu, used to treat flu symptoms, is reportedly in short supply.

But is the situation as bad as it seems? The bottom line: It's too early in the flu season to say for sure, according to .

Certainly there are worrying signs.

"This year there is a higher number of positive tests coming back," said Dr. Lewis Marshall Jr., chairman of the department of at Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in New York City. "Emergency rooms are experiencing an influx of people. People are trying to find the vaccine and having a hard time due to the fact that it's so late in the vaccination season."

But the vaccine is still available, said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the U.S. , in a statement Tuesday.

"[The] FDA has approved from seven manufacturers, and collectively they have produced an estimated 135 million doses of this season's for the U.S.," Hamburg said. "We have received reports that some consumers have found spot shortages of the vaccine. We are monitoring this situation."

Consumers can go to flu.gov to find local sources for flu shots, including clinics, supermarkets and pharmacies, she said.

For people who have the flu, she said, "be assured that [the] FDA is working to make sure that medicine to treat is available for all who need it. We do anticipate intermittent, temporary shortages of the oral suspension form of —the liquid version often prescribed for children—for the remainder of the flu season. However, [the]FDA is working with the manufacturer to increase supply."

The flu season seems to have started earlier than usual. A report Friday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 47 states were reporting widespread influenza activity, up from 41 earlier the week before.

But the report also stated that the flu has begun to subside in some areas, especially in the Southeast, where it first showed up. And doctors' visits for flu have dropped, a CDC spokesman said.

This is typical of a famously unpredictable virus.

"One of the characteristics of flu is that you see lots of geographic differences in the impact and timing of epidemics, so while you might see an outbreak start to go away in one area, it might be just beginning in another area," said Dr. John Treanor, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center, in New York. "I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a decline in the number of cases in the Northeast but at the same time see more cases developing in the West."

Marshall said flu activity generally peaks in late January, but it's unclear if this year's early start means the flu also will peak early.

Other factors may be complicating the issue.

For instance, last year's season was relatively mild, which may have "magnified the perception that this year is more severe," Treanor said. Although, he added, this year "is a relatively more severe outbreak than we've seen in the U.S. for several years, so it's probably a combination of both things."

The flu this year isn't necessarily causing more severe illness, at least not across the board.

This year's H3N2 virus is generally characterized by higher rates of illness in older people and correspondingly higher rates of hospital admissions and deaths, Treanor said.

The FDA's Hamburg said, "Although the last year's flu season was relatively mild, this season is turning out to be more severe. On the positive side, the vaccine is well matched this season to the circulating virus strains that are causing influenza."

The bottom line is that no one knows what kind of flu season this year is going to turn out to be.

"Projection is very difficult," said Dr. Kenneth Bromberg, chairman of pediatrics and director of the Vaccine Research Center at Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City. "You have no idea what's going to happen."

Treanor agreed. "If you've seen one flu season, you've seen one ," he said.

Explore further: 'Spot' shortages of flu vaccine, tamiflu reported, FDA head says

More information: For more about the flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Related Stories

'Spot' shortages of flu vaccine, tamiflu reported, FDA head says

January 15, 2013
(HealthDay)—Sporadic shortages of both the flu vaccine and the flu treatment Tamiflu are being reported, as this year's intense flu season continues, according to a top U.S. health official.

Flu season off to latest start in decades

February 17, 2012
(AP) -- Health officials say the flu season is finally here - the slowest start in nearly 25 years.

Flu season came early but too soon to say it's bad

January 10, 2013
The flu season arrived early in the U.S. this year, but health officials and experts say it's too early to say this will be a bad one.

US flu season starts early, could be bad, CDC says

December 3, 2012
Health officials say flu season is off to its earliest start in nearly 10 years—and it could be a bad one.

Flu tightens its grip on U.S.

January 9, 2013
(HealthDay)—The 2013 flu season is living up to its advance billing as one of the worst in years.

Little U.S. flu activity so far, CDC says

October 4, 2012
(HealthDay)—Flu activity in the United States remains at low levels, federal health officials said Thursday.

Recommended for you

New approach could help curtail hospitalizations due to influenza infection

January 18, 2018
More than 700,000 Americans were hospitalized due to illnesses associated with the seasonal flu during the 2014-15 flu season, according to federal estimates. A radical new approach to vaccine development at UCLA may help ...

Flu may be spread just by breathing, new study shows; coughing and sneezing not required

January 18, 2018
It is easier to spread the influenza virus (flu) than previously thought, according to a new University of Maryland-led study released today. People commonly believe that they can catch the flu by exposure to droplets from ...

Certain flu virus mutations may compensate for fitness costs of other mutations

January 18, 2018
Seasonal flu viruses continually undergo mutations that help them evade the human immune system, but some of these mutations can reduce a virus's potency. According to new research published in PLOS Pathogens, certain mutations ...

Zika virus damages placenta, which may explain malformed babies

January 18, 2018
Though the Zika virus is widely known for a recent outbreak that caused children to be born with microencephaly, or having a small head, and other malformations, scientists have struggled to explain how the virus affects ...

Study reveals how MRSA infection compromises lymphatic function

January 17, 2018
Infections of the skin or other soft tissues with the hard-to-treat MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria appear to permanently compromise the lymphatic system, which is crucial to immune system function. ...

Fresh approach to tuberculosis vaccine offers better protection

January 17, 2018
A unique platform that resulted in a promising HIV vaccine has also led to a new, highly effective vaccine against tuberculosis that is moving toward testing in humans.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.