Nationwide, the 2017-2018 flu season is getting worse and is now as severe as the swine flu epidemic of 2009. The amount of flu activity in D.C., Maryland and Virginia also continues to increase as the epidemic spreads across the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) most recent flu monitoring revealed that flu activity in Maryland and Virginia was “widespread” and “local” in D.C., which is the highest level of activity the city can report.
Within a week D.C. saw 339 new cases of the flu reported by hospitals, and Maryland and Virginia reported increased emergency room visits for flu-related illness.
Influenza, or the flu, is a respiratory illness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. It can be severe, and possibly life-threatening, for young children and the weak. Symptoms of the flu can include fever, chills, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, headaches and fatigue. Some may also have vomiting and diarrhea.
“Our latest tracking data indicate that influenza activity is still on the rise overall,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC director. “In fact, we may be on track to beat some recent records.”
So far, this flu season has not reached historic levels, but it is on par with the 2014-2015 season, which was the worst in recent years, and experts say they are not sure whether the season has hit its “peak.”
Those most at risk for getting the flu are the elderly, children under 5, pregnant women and people with chronic illness such as heart and lung disease.
This flu season has see more than 60 pediatric flu-related deaths. However, experts say the virus is affecting unusual populations.
“One of the areas that we’re really seeing unusual levels of hospitalizations is in non-elderly adults,” Schuchat said. “So far this year we’ve seen 63.1 per 100,000 people in the 50 to 64 age group being hospitalized by flu. In [2015-2016], that number was 35.1.”
So far this year, the flu season, which runs from October to May, is on track to exceed the rate of hospitalization for the 2014-2015 season, the worst on record in recent years.
The CDC recommends a yearly seasonal flu vaccine as the first and most crucial step to preventing influenza infections.
This year, injectables flu shots are preferred over nasal sprays.
Flu vaccines are updated annually based on international surveillance and scientific estimations about which strains of viruses are most likely to circulate in each year. This year vaccines are equipped to defend against the A(H1N1) influenza virus.
Influenza A-H3N2 viruses continue to dominate this flu season. These viruses are often linked to more severe illness, especially in children and the elderly. However, B strains, which vaccines are more equipped to protect against, have seen an increase in their proportion of circulating flu viruses.
“We continue to recommend getting the flu vaccine to prevent flu,” Schuchat said.
She said despite ongoing concerns about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine against Flu A, a different category of the flu, the vaccines often work often for the B type strains of the flu that are also circulating this year.
“Some protection is better than none,” Schuchat said.
Since the flu can make people more susceptible to secondary infections such as bacterial pneumonia, people aged 65 and older are also advised to get a pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine. Many children are already vaccinated as infants and toddlers.
Other steps to be taken to avoid the flu are to avoid close contact with sick people, limit contact with others when sick and cover nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing. Hands should also be washed often with soap and water and kept away from eyes, nose and mouth, and surfaces that may be contaminated with germs like the flu should be cleaned and disinfected.