The flu season has officially begun, and it’s off to an early start according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Federal health officials report a significant increase in flu activity over the last two weeks, particularly in the south and the southeast. The flu strain that’s being seen is particularly hard on the elderly and tends to make people sicker than other types.
“Increasing flu activity should be a wake-up call,” said Dr. Melinda Wharton, Acting Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “For anyone who has put off vaccination, it’s time to get your flu vaccine now.”
Although the flu season tends to peak in January and February, 48 states and Puerto Rico have reported cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza, and the percentage of specimens testing positive for influenza is rising fast nationwide. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas are reporting the highest levels of activity.
Except for the 2009 pandemic swine flu strain, this is the earliest that the flu season has started since 2003. The 2011-2012 flu season was mild and arrived late, peaking in mid-March.
Health officials don’t know why the flu is showing up so early this year. But it’s the uncertainty and the unpredictability of the virus itself that has them encouraging everyone to get their flu shots now.
“Vaccination is by far the best tool we have to protect ourselves against flu,” said CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
For the 2012-2013 season, manufacturers say they will produce between 146 million and 149 million doses of flu vaccine. Last season, over 132 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed in the United States.
Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older. So far, the CDC reports that more than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, and that the vaccine formulated for this year is well-matched to the three strains of the virus now appearing.
“How well the vaccine works depends in part on the match between vaccine viruses and circulating viruses,” said Wharton.
“If the influenza viruses spreading are very different from the vaccine viruses, the vaccine won’t work as well. While it’s early in the season, it’s encouraging to see a well-matched vaccine so far. That bodes well for how well this season’s vaccine will protect against illness, hospitalizations and deaths.”
The three strains of influenza viruses making people sick are the influenza B virus and two types of influenza A, H1N1 and H3N2.
The CDC estimates that depending on its severity, anywhere between 3,000 and 49,000 people can die during a flu season, with as many as 200,000 hospitalized.
Vaccination is especially important for people who are at high risk of serious flu-related complications, like young children and people 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic medical conditions, like asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.