As cases spread in 41 states, hospitals fear severe flu season

Dominant strain can cause severe illness in children, elderly

This flu season got an early—and severe—start: CDC officials say 41 states were already reporting "widespread" flu activity by Dec. 29.

An estimated 36,000 people die from the flu and flu-related illnesses in a typical season and CDC officials had anticipated a more severe flu season following a relatively mild one last winter. "As we have moved into the end of December and January, activity has really picked up in a lot more states," CDC spokesperson Tom Skinner says.

The flu season does not usually peak until late January or early February, but CDC says that 29 states and New York City were already reporting high levels of flu-like illness by Dec. 29. At the same time, nine states were reporting moderate levels and 10 states were reporting low levels.

In addition, CDC data show that this season's flu-related child and infant deaths reach 18 on Dec. 29. Meanwhile, outpatient visits of flu-like symptoms increased to 5.6%.

In Rhode Island, almost 10% of ED visits last week were for flu-related reasons.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Department of Public Health says nearly 100 flu patients were sent to the ICU from Sept. 30 to Dec. 31, up from just one ICU patient in the last three months of 2011. At Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital, physicians say they have not seen so many cases of flu since the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

"'Active' is not even a strong enough word," says Paul Schreckenberger, a pathology professor at Loyola University Health System. "It's explosive."

Moreover, the predominant strain this flu season is H3N2. "In years past when we have seen an H3N2 dominate, we tend to see more severe illness in young kids and the elderly," Skinner says.

"It's not too late to get vaccinated," Skinner notes, adding that the currently available vaccine is a good match for the circulating strains of H3N2. Vaccination is recommended especially for children, pregnant women, those 65 and older, and patients with a chronic condition (Reinberg, HealthDay, 1/4; AP/CBS News, 1/7; Svitek, Chicago Tribune, 1/4).  

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