The Center for Disease Control’s weekly report released February 2, (the most recent update at time of publication) reports “The proportion of people seeing their health care provider for influenza-like illness (ILI) continues to decrease, but remains above national and regional baselines. Most regions are showing stable or declining levels of ILI activity.” The CDC also reported that since October 1, 2012, 8,293 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations have been recorded.
Thirty-eight states, including Vermont, have reported widespread influenza activity.
The term “widespread” means that the flu has been lab-confirmed, or an outbreak has occurred in the majority of a state’s regions. Vermont is divided into five regions, meaning only three would have to report cases of the flu to qualify the state’s flu cases as “widespread.”
According to Dr. Patsy Kelso, state epidemiologist for infectious disease at the Vermont Department of Health, there is a national consensus that this flu season has been particularly bad. This flu season, 86.8% of hospitalized influenza cases have been caused by the H3N2 strain, which Kelso says historically causes worse flu symptoms. “It’s been an H3 flu season, and H3 causes more moderate illness as opposed to a mild flu season, which tends to be associated with H1 flu viruses.”
In the Deerfield Valley, flu season began to peak earlier than expected, with a high number of cases reported in December. Jill Robart, a registered nurse at Southern Vermont Medical Center, says this year’s flu season is the worst she has seen in 20 years as a medical professional. “We don’t expect to see this many cases until much later in the season,” said Robart. “Usually we see this many in late February, March, and sometimes into April, but to see that many in December was unusual.”
SVMC began providing flu shots in October, while local businesses such as Rite Aid began offering them as early as August, due to a wider demand, and a trend of customers who receive their shots early.
So far, SVMC has provided well over a thousand shots, the same as last year.
According to Kelso, the flu vaccine distributed this season is a good match to the strains that are circulating. “Each year the flu vaccine is changed,” said Kelso. “That change is based on what was the most predominant flu virus circulating during the previous flu season, and that’s what is put in the next year’s vaccine.
Kelso also said that the CDC has compared this year’s flu virus in each state to the vaccine, and nearly 98% of the virus samples tested proved a good match to the vaccine. “Some years it’s a good match to the virus that is circulating and this year it’s a good match,” said Kelso.
According to the CDC, nationwide more than 50% of hospitalizations from ILI are among adults 65 years and older, and 59 pediatric deaths have been reported as a result of the flu.
The recent trend shows that at Vermont hospitals the number of respiratory illness-related visits hit a peak of over 20% of all visits during the first week of January, but continues to decline and sat just above 15% at the beginning of February.
Prevention of the flu comes down to common sense, according to Robart. “I know it sounds cliché, but it’s a fact: thorough hand-washing practice is the best way to deter the flu from spreading. We haven’t seen a flu like this in a long time, so good common sense measures like resting, getting plenty of fluids, and not going to work or school are important.”
Kelso said it’s important to get vaccinated while still being cautious. “If you’re vaccinated you’re much less likely to have severe illness, and less likely to get the flu. What we want to prevent is severe flu and deaths from flu.”