Flu hitting earlier, harder than previous years, experts say

Flu hitting earlier, harder than previous years, experts say
Charles Mostoller

An influenza epidemic is sweeping the nation, with more cases and hospitalizations this year, and a less effective vaccine for the strain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent numbers, 43 states have high or widespread outbreaks, including Pennsylvania.

“It is peaking,” said Neil Fishman, associate chief medical officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “We’re seeing more cases than last year, seeing them earlier, and the current epidemic is equivalent to what we saw two years ago.”

Data from the last week of 2014 shows flu-like symptoms accounted for nearly 6 percent of all doctor visits nationally, and higher hospitalization rates than this time last year, with 12.6 per 100,000 people being treated for the flu.

This year’s predominant strain, H3N2, was prevalent during the 2012-2013 flu season, when 13.3 per 100,000 people were hospitalized for the flu, according to the CDC. Health professionals say the vaccine is only about 60 percent effective, but decreases the severity of flu-symptoms, which include fever, cough and runny nose, aches and fatigue.

Across the nation, there have been 21 pediatric deaths this flu season – six of which were reported in the last week of 2014.

As of Dec. 6, 1,180 positive flu cases have been reported in Pennsylvania, according to the Philadelphia Department of Health. Four deaths have been reported this flu season, all outside of Philadelphia and in patients over 65 years.

There were 66 reports of the H3N2 flu reported in Philadelphia between Dec. 14 and 20.

Fishman said that although this year’s vaccine is only about 60 percent effective, it still provides “protection and decreases the severity of the illness.”

“I don’t think you can just blame the vaccine for this season,” Fishman said. “Two years ago the vaccine was spot on and we still had a very active season.”

Fishman said the best ways for preventing the flu are frequent hand washing, and people who are already sick staying home until their fever passes. It’s not too late to get vaccinated, Fishman said, and people over 65, children, pregnant women and those with preexisting health conditions should get the vaccine.

A flu shot locator is available at flushot.healthmap.gov.

Information on flu shots clinics in Philadelphia for those without health insurance is available at www.phila.gov/health/DiseaseControl/shotschedule.html.