Early outbreak has officials bracing for worst flu season in years

An early outbreak threatens to makes this year’s influenza season one of the most difficult in recent years as public health officials brace for the worst.

Hospitals in the Northeast, from New Jersey to Massachusetts, are reporting record numbers of emergency room visits related to flu-like illnesses, and Boston has declared a public health emergency.

At least 41 states have reported widespread flu outbreaks, more than 2,250 people have been hospitalized and 18 children have died, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Updated national statistics are scheduled to be released Friday.


“It’s about five weeks ahead of the average flu season,” said Lyn Finelli, who monitors influenza for the CDC. “We haven’t seen such an early season since 2003 to 2004.”

The annual influenza misery brings fevers, sore throats, aches in the joints, fits of coughing and sometimes vomiting to as many as one in five people in the United States at some point from about October through spring. Health officials estimate that perhaps 24,000 people die each year from the illness or its complications such as pneumonia and severe dehydration. More than $10 billion is lost, primarily in wages, because of the illness.

True influenza, which has reached epidemic and even deadly pandemic proportions over the centuries, is often confused with other ailments. Colds are the usual culprits and are caused by a different virus, or a variant that mainly attacks the digestive system as the so-called stomach flu. Compared with a typical cold, symptoms from the flu, especially fever and lethargy, are fierce.

Officials began warning of the severity of this season’s flu early in December when Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, urged people to get a flu shot to minimize the disease’s spread. While publicizing National Influenza Vaccination Week, Frieden said a flu shot was the best tool available to stop the spread of the disease, along with covering your mouth when coughing and washing your hands.

That advice is still the best, health officials said. And public officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday, urged their constituents to get vaccinated. It usually takes a couple of weeks for the vaccination to become effective, meaning that having an injection today will offer some protection through the upcoming peak season.

So far the dominant strain of the flu that has been reported has been the Type A influenza known as H3N2. Officials said the current vaccine is a good match for this version.

“While we can’t say for certain how severe this season will be, we can say that a lot of people are getting sick with influenza and we are getting reports of severe illness and hospitalizations,” Dr. Joe Bresee, the CDC’s chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch in the influenza division, said in a statement.

According to the CDC, flu in all but seven continental states is in the “widespread” category and even those states are considered to be having “regional” outbreaks, the next most serious category. The CDC also said the proportion of people complaining of flu-like symptoms who visited healthcare providers had reached 5.6%, about the double the 2.8% baseline number the agency uses. That is also substantially higher than last year’s mild flu season year when just 2.2% sought professional help for symptoms.

Media reports have noted acute problems in Pennsylvania, where a hospital was forced to set up an emergency treatment tent to handle the large number of patients; in Wyoming, where the emergency room in Cheyenne reported a large number of visits; and in Utah, where 250 people were sickened by the stomach flu at a Mormon training center.

Boston has also been hard hit and is planning to offer free flu shots. There have been at least four deaths since Oct. 1, according to Mayor Thomas Merino’s office. About 700 cases have been confirmed, almost 10 times the number as during last year’s flu season. Four percent of all emergency visits are related to the flu.

“This is the worst flu season we’ve seen since 2009, and people should take the threat of flu seriously,” Menino said in a statement. “This is not only a health concern, but also an economic concern for families, and I’m urging residents to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family. If you’re sick, please stay home from work or school.”

California is classifed as having “regional” flu activity, Corey Egel, a spokesman for the state Department of Health told the Los Angeles Times in a telephone interview. There have been four influenza-related deaths so far, but the peak season won’t be reached until next month.

Even within the state, there are variations, Egle noted. There are growing number of cases in Southern California and in the Bay Area, a normal uptick that usually comes after the holiday season, he said.


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