This year’s flu season is shaping up to be the worst in nearly a decade – and it’s far from over.
So many people have fallen sick with influenza in Georgia and across the country that some pharmacies are running out of flu medicines, emergency rooms are seeing a surge in patients, and the death toll is rising higher than in previous years.
During the third week of the year, which runs from Jan. 14 to Jan. 20, there were 115 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta due to influenza, marking a sharp increase from 40 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta during the previous week.
There have also been a total of 25 confirmed influenza-related deaths in the state this flu season, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. That is up from a total of 12 last week. Of those who died from flu-related deaths, all 25 were over the age of 50 with 20 of those who died over the age of 65.
The flu remains widespread in 49 states (every state except Hawaii), and reports of flu-like illnesses continued to increase through the third week of January, according to an update released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This season, the predominant flu strain is H3N2, a form of influenza A. This flu strain is associated with more severe illness, especially among children and the elderly. This strain is included in this year’s flu vaccine, but viruses can change and this particular strain tends to mutate more than other strains.
The H3N2 strain also circulated during the 2014-2015 season, another severe season for flu.
Also this year, it’s not just the usual older residents over 65 who are being hit particularly hard as flu season rages - people 50 and older are reeling from flu cases. While the hospitalization rates are highest among adults 65 and older, health officials said adults ages 50 to 64 were the next most likely to be hospitalized. It’s not clear why this is happening. Officials say one possibility may be the mix of viruses circulating this season, particularly the H3N2, and the different levels of immunity people have developed to those viruses over time. Baby boomers also tend to have lower rates of flu vaccine than older adults.
The deadly flu epidemic spreading across the nation has now claimed the lives of 37 children, the CDC said Friday.
Vaccine effectiveness typically ranges from 40 to 60 percent in a good year. It’s unclear just how effective this year’s vaccine is. Information on how effective the vaccine is typically is not available until the flu season is over.
Experts say even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, the vaccine can still help lessen the severity of the flu, and reduce the chance of experiencing severe complications from the flu. Getting a vaccine can also reduce the length of the flu if you do get sick.
Experts say it’s still not too late to get your flu shot. While getting a vaccine earlier in the season is better, there is still a lot of the season to go and vaccination now could still provide some benefit. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza virus infection
Health officials say there are common sense flu prevention techniques — frequently washing your hands with soap and warm water. (If water is not available, alcohol-based gels are the next best thing.) If you are sick, cover your coughs and sneezes with the inside of your elbow or a tissue that is then discarded. Also, don’t go to work, and don’t have your children go to school, when sick.
Dr. Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist with the Georgia Department of Public Health said if you do get sick and think you may have the flu, contact your health care provider right away, particularly if you or family members are at high risk for serious flu complications — young children (under the age of 5), those over 65, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or asthma. Even young, healthy adults should call their doctor if symptoms don’t improve or get worse after three to four days of illness.
There are antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza that can help reduce the duration of flu symptoms but the medication needs to be started within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be most effective. GoodRx (www.goodrx.com) is a website that can help people find availability at area pharmacies and find the cheapest place to obtain the medication.