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5 Things About the Unusually Harsh Flu Season

Laura Joszt
The current flu season is already bad, but it hasn’t peaked yet. Here are 5 things about the current flu season and why it has been so harsh.
The current flu season is already bad, but it hasn’t peaked yet. The CDC recently released a report on the statistics of the current flu season, which officials were warning at the beginning of December 2017 could be particularly harsh.

Here are 5 things about the current flu season.

1. Officials knew it would be severe

One reason health officials expected this to be a tough flu season was the early start, which can mean a longer flu season during which more people get sick. Also, health officials used Australia, which has its winter during the United States’ summer, as an indicator of what to expect. Australia suffered a severe flu season in July and August.

They knew going into this current season that we would be faced with the H3N2 strain, which tends to make people sicker compared with other strains.

2. H3N2 strain

There are a number of different flu strains, but the H3N2 virus is more difficult than the others. STAT explained that drug companies are struggling to produce an effective vaccine against H3N2, which causes more hospitalizations, outbreaks, and deaths than H1N1.

In addition to H3N2 hitting seniors harder, the vaccine against H3N2 is only about 33% effective. The reason for the suboptimal effectiveness of the vaccine is that the virus doesn’t grow well in eggs, which is the main way the flu vaccine is produced.

Finally, the H3N2 virus mutates at a faster rate than the H1N1 virus, which probably also impacts how well the vaccine works.

3. Hospitalizations and deaths

Overall, the hospitalization rate has been 41.9 per 100,000, and hospitalizations can help predict deaths. As of now, there have been 37 pediatric deaths reported for the current flu season.

Overall, 9.1% of deaths during the first week of January were due to pneumonia and influenza, which is above the 7.2% epidemic threshold.

The CDC believes that the current flu season, despite earlier beliefs, has not yet peaked.

4. Hospital shortages

Compounding the challenges of the flu season is the fact that hospitals are facing shortages of intravenous (IV) bags. The lasting damage after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico has caused a number of shortages in hospitals across the country, and the shortage of IV bags has caused hospitals to find alternative, less efficient, ways of administering drugs to patients with the flu.

5. The importance of herd immunity

As always, there is a low rate of people getting immunized against the flu. While two-thirds of older Americans get the vaccine, less than 50% of children are vaccinated and only one-third of adults between the ages of 18 and 49 get the vaccine. Even healthy individuals need to get vaccinated in order to create herd immunity, as explained in The New York Times’ blog The Upshot. Healthy individuals who get vaccinated protect children, babies, older people, and the immuno-compromised.

During the 2015-2016 flu season, getting just 5% more people vaccinated could have prevented another 500,000 illnesses, 230,000 flu-related medical visits, and 6000 flu-related hospitalizations. If the United States had met its goal of vaccinating 70% for all age groups, 2.4 million illnesses and 19,000 hospitalizations could have been prevented.

 
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