This year’s flu season: Public health catastrophe or par for the course?

John Ross, MD, FIDSA

Contributing Editor

Follow me on Twitter @JohnRossMD

If you think that there’s a lot of flu going around this winter, you’re absolutely right. Every state except Hawaii is reporting widespread influenza activity, making for a lot of miserable people suffering from classic flu symptoms of cough, fever, headache, stuffy nose, and achy muscles. Hospitals across the United States have been flooded with flu patients. Matters have been made worse by national shortages of IV fluids in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

Are we headed toward a historically bad flu season? It’s too early to tell. This year, it could just be that flu season, which is usually at its worst in February, is peaking early. Even an average flu season is a public health disaster, leading to between 12,000 and 56,000 excess deaths in American adults. There have been several tragic and widely publicized deaths of children this flu season, with at least 30 such cases so far. Unfortunately, this is not that unusual. In the United States, 98 kids died of flu-related complications in the most recent flu season. In recent years, deaths of children from flu in the US have ranged from 35 in 2011–2012, to a peak of 282 in the 2009–2010 flu season. Most children who die after influenza have a high-risk underlying medical problem, such as asthma, cerebral palsy, or heart disease, but 43% were previously healthy.

So far this year, the major flu type is H3N2, a strain of influenza A virus. Last year, the flu vaccine was only around 32% effective against H3N2, while providing much better protection against the other two major flu strains. It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine if you haven’t already. Some protection against flu is better than none. Even if the flu vaccine is not completely protective against H3N2, it can reduce the risk of a life-threatening case. It’s also common for other varieties of virus, such as influenza B, to emerge late in flu season, and the vaccine usually provides better coverage for these other strains.

Other measures to protect yourself and others against flu include:

  • Handwashing or use of hand sanitizer
  • Keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Staying home from work, school, or church if you have flulike symptoms
  • Covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing; it’s good for public health (not to mention good manners!)
  • If possible, avoiding contact with sick patients until 5 to 7 days after they become ill
  • Getting both types of the pneumonia vaccine if you are over 65 years old, or if you have an underlying medical condition (bacterial pneumonia is very common after influenza infection)
  • Eating well, staying active, and getting a good night’s sleep.