Adding to the misery is that this year’s flu strain is a much more aggressive type than last year’s.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a public health emergency this past weekend, giving pharmacists permission to administer flu vaccinations to more people. The mayor of Boston also declared a public health emergency last week as officials there faced 10 times more flu cases than last year. Mayor Thomas Menino noted that it’s been “an increasingly tough season [and] we are less than halfway through.”
Nine of the 10 U.S. regions had “elevated” flu activity last week, and 20 children across the country have died, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Emergency rooms across the country are struggling to keep up with the large numbers of people experiencing the cough, fever, sore throat and achy symptoms of the disease.
In New York, where influenza cases have topped 19,000 so far compared to 4,100 for all of last year’s flu season, the governor’s executive order temporarily allows pharmacists to give flu shots to patients between ages 6 months to 18 years. Typically, the state limits pharmacists to administering vaccinations only to people 18 and older, Reuters reported.
According to Fox News, this year’s flu is similar to the type that caused a severe outbreak in 2003-2004, when the flu shot wasn’t a good match for that year’s strains and there were more than 40,000 associated deaths. CDC officials say this year’s vaccines seem to be well-matched. So far, 91 percent of the flu viruses analyzed by the CDC match the flu strains in the vaccine.
The predominant strain of flu this year is an influenza A virus called H3N2, which has accounted for 76 percent of the reported viruses. This strain causes a more serious illness, particularly among the elderly, Michael Jhung, M.D., a CDC flu expert told Reuters. “That could be a contributor to why we are seeing such high levels of activity right now,” he said.
Health officials say it’s too early to predict just how bad this season will be, but Google Flu Trends, which monitors flu activity around the world based on internet search terms, shows the U.S. already in the bright-red “intense” category.
For a real-time map that shows where the flu is spreading, check out Flu Near You, a project coordinated by Children’s Hospital Boston, Skoll Global Threats Fund and the American Public Health Association.
How do you know if you have the flu or just a bad cold? According to ABC News, flu symptoms usually come on suddenly and can include high fever, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat, and body aches. Some people, particularly children, may have diarrhea and vomiting.
If you have other underlying health problems, call your health provider as soon as you develop flu symptoms to see if an antiviral medication might help. Otherwise, stay home so you don’t infect others, drink plenty of liquids and keep your hands clean so you don’t spread germs.
(Updated Jan. 14, 2013)