“Just because [flu season] arrives early, it doesn’t mean absolutely that it’s going to be worse than normal,” Boss said. “It could be. It might not be. Flu is probably the most unpredictable disease that we deal with. So to speculate based on data that’s beginning to come in that this season is going to play out one way or another is interesting to do but it’s almost meaningless. So the messages that we’re still trying to get out are we know that every year flu season typically starts in Georgia as early as October and can run as late as March or April of the next year. Sometimes it begins a little earlier, sometimes later.
“This time it looks like it’s kicked in and actually begun prior to Christmas. And we also know that there is plenty of flu vaccine available in our communities. It’s more available than ever before, at more places and more of the vaccine was manufactured this year than ever before. ... It’s not too late to get the flu shot. You can find flu shots at any number of providers — at private physicians, your local health department, big-box retailers that have pharmacies, even your employer may be offering them.”
Even though most people will recover from influenza in less than two weeks and experience symptoms — such as fever, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue and muscle aches — some individuals develop complications that can result in hospitalization or death. People who are considered at-risk for serious flu-related problems are young children, pregnant women, individuals 65 years and older, and people with particular chronic medical conditions, such as asthma or heart disease.
With the CDC reporting about 200,000 hospitalizations are attributed to influenza each season in the U.S., Boss stressed the importance of being vaccinated for the flu season, which normally reaches its height in January or February. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older receive an annual flu vaccine, which can be administered as a shot or a nasal spray.
“According to CDC’s weekly surveillance report published on Nov. 30, 2012, 48 states and Puerto Rico have already reported cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza and, nationally, the percentage of specimens testing positive for influenza is rising fast,” the CDC revealed in a news release. “Influenza-like-illness (ILI) activity levels in parts of the country are already higher than all of last season. Nationally, the United States reached the baseline level for ILI the week ending Nov. 24, 2012, and five states [Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas] are already reporting the highest level of activity possible.
“... activity is most intense in the south-central and southeast of the country right now; however, it shows signs of increasing across the rest of the country as well. Most of the viruses characterized so far this season have been H3N2 viruses; which are typically associated with more severe seasons. The good news is that most of the viruses characterized at CDC so far this season are well-matched to the vaccine viruses.”
To keep flu vaccinations on the forefront of people’s minds after Thanksgiving, National Influenza Vaccination Week is being observed through Saturday. Currently, an estimated 37 percent of the U.S. population has been immunized, which is similar to the last year’s figures.
“It’s important to try and get our influenza immunization rates up,” said Boss, adding vaccinations usually decrease after the holidays. “Georgia has some of the lowest population immunization rates in the U.S. Typically we’re lucky if we get 40 percent of our population immunized against flu. If we could get that up more in the 80 percent range, we could almost stop flu dead in its tracks each year but we’re a long ways from that. So the recommendation this year is for everyone 6 months and older to get a flu shot. That’s just about universal.
“... We can talk in generalities, but [flu season] gets here when it gets here and this year it appears that it got here in early December. But again, it’s just too early to speculate on what kind of flu season it’s going to be. The good news is that there appears to be a good match this year between the strains of influenza that are circulating and the vaccine that was produced for this year. So again, folks should get their flu vaccination. It remains the single best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from getting flu.”
For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/flu or call CDC at 1-800-CDC-INFO.