Hospitalizations blamed on the flu may be on track for a record in this increasingly challenging flu season, federal officials said Friday, and 16 more pediatric deaths were reported during the week.
“This is a very difficult season. The hospitalization rate is the highest we’ve seen,” said Anne Schuchat, MD, the newly appointed Acting Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The flu is “incredibly difficult to predict,” she added, and the agency can’t be sure whether the season has yet reached its peak.
Hospitalizations had been tracking closely with the 2014–2015 season, which led to 710,000 hospitalizations for the flu. But the hospitalization rate reached 51.4 per 100,000 during the week that ended January 27, said Daniel B. Jernigan, MD, MPH, who heads the CDC’s influenza division. If that trend holds, the nation “may well exceed” that earlier record, he said. Schuchat characterized the week’s hospitalization rate (up from 41.9 the week before) as “pretty bad news.”
As usual, rates have been highest among those older than 65 years of age, but rates have also been high among the 50–64 age group and children younger than 5.
Flu activity remained high across most of the nation during the week and in many areas continued to worsen. However, CDC officials cited evidence for the second week in a row that the flu may be easing in the Western states. The number of states with widespread flu dropped from 49 the prior week to 48 when Oregon reported a slight improvement.
In all likelihood, several weeks of high flu activity are still in store. The average season is 16 weeks, but they have ranged from 11 to 20 weeks.
The 16 new flu-related deaths among children brought this season’s total to 53. Only about 20% of those children had been vaccinated, Jernigan said, and half were healthy children without known underlying medical problems.
Adult mortality figures are not reported, but Jernigan said 9.7% of death certificates cited flu and pneumonia for the week, up from 9.1% the week before.
The percentage of visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms for flu-like illnesses rose to 7.1% for the week, up from 6.6% a week earlier. The number of states with high activity rose from 39 to 42, with activity easing in the West, rising in the East, and static in the South.
Testing has blamed the H3N2 variant of the flu for 76% of this season’s cases. Questions surround the flu vaccine’s effectiveness against the H3N2 variant; a widely quoted Australian study put its effectiveness at about 10%. Still, the CDC recommends getting the vaccine, which appears to be more effective against the H1N1 and B viruses also in circulation. The flu shot may also lead to less severe symptoms among those who come down with the illness.
The CDC continues to work with public and private partners to improve vaccines.
Schuchat also suggested that people older than 65 get a pneumonia vaccination, which can help prevent the most serious flu complications. Among other preventive suggestions: staying home when sick, washing your hands, and seeking antivirals for people with serious symptoms or at high risk of complications.
The CDC has received sporadic reports of overcrowded hospitals and medication shortages. Schuchat suggested pharmacists may want to increase their supplies on hand of antiviral medications.
Schuchat, who took over leadership of the agency only two days previously, said the CDC remains focused on fighting the flu despite the leadership change, “and that mission will not falter.”
Source: CDC briefing; February 2, 2018.