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January 15, 2019

How bad is this year's flu season? The answer, charted.

Daily Briefing

    Between six and seven million people have been stricken with the flu so far this year, but CDC data released Friday suggest the 2018-2019 flu season is on track to be milder than last year's season.

    About the report

    CDC typically releases a Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report during the flu season. The latest weekly report adds a greater level of granularity, reporting on details such as the number of cases, doctor visits, and hospitalizations, the Washington Post reports. Previously, that data was included only in a broader report published each year in September.

    Alicia Fry, head of CDC's epidemiology and prevention branch in the influenza division, explained the agency released the preliminary estimates to "give people a better picture" of the potential risks and complications of the flu and to encourage people to get vaccinated.

    For hospitals, the detailed data can help providers determine the virus' potential impact on resources in the coming months. Jeannie Moorjani, a pediatrician for Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, said it is "really nice to have a more detailed account of the activity."

    This year's flu season projected to be less severe than the last

    Friday's report breaks down the flu's impact from Oct. 1 2018, to Jan. 5 2019.

    The preliminary data show nearly 7 million people contracted the flu between Oct. 1 2018, and Jan. 5 2019, leading to more than 3 million medical visits and between 69,000 and 84,000 hospitalizations. CDC did not include an estimate of flu-related deaths.

    As of the week ending in Jan. 5, flu activity was "widespread" in 30 states and "regional" in 17 states, with "local" or "sporadic" flu activity in the remaining states.

    While flu activity is still "elevated" for the 2018-2019 season, CDC said certain severity indicators such as outpatient visits, are down compared with last season, suggesting the United States is on track to have a milder flu season. Last year's flu season led to 50 million cases, almost 1 million hospitalizations, and 80,000 deaths.

    For example, the data show the hospitalization rate for the flu is 9.1 per 100,000 this season, compared with 22.7 per 100,000 at this point in the 2017-2018 season. And while outpatient visits for the flu remain above the national baseline at 3.5%, that rate is lower than the 5.8% observed at this time last year, MedPage Today reports.

    Why this year's flu season may be less severe

    Officials said that one reason why this year's flu season might be milder is that H1N1, this year's predominant flu strain, is usually a less severe form of the virus than H3N2, last year's dominant flu strain, Modern Healthcare reports.

    However, they cautioned that the season will not reach its peak until February, adding that patients should continue to seek medical care if they are sick (Sibi Joseph, Reuters, 1/11; Sun, Washington Post, 1/11; Johnson, Modern Healthcare, 1/11; Hellmann, The Hill, 1/11; Walker, MedPage Today, 1/11).  

    How to avoid the flu when you fly

    Download this infographic to learn about both the obvious and less obvious locations where germs on planes are rampant.

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