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Flu Season Starts a Month Early

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden

Instead of waiting for the new year to ring in, the 2012-2013 flu season has gotten an early start by almost a month, breaking a decade-long trend, federal health officials announced Dec. 3.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Thomas R. Frieden said that the influenza virus is unpredictable, but the early season and the dominant flu strains suggest that this could be a bad flu year. "We haven't said that it's going to be the worst flu season, but it's the earliest season we've seen since 2003-2004," he said. The 2009-2010 flu pandemic remains an exception.

The dominant influenza strain this year is influenza A(H3N2), which has been associated with more severe flu seasons. But the good news is that this year's flu vaccine is a 90% match for the specimens that have been sent to the CDC, according to an agency update.

Vaccine-makers have sent out roughly 123 million doses of the vaccine so far, and nearly 112 million Americans have been vaccinated so far this flu season, according to officials.

What's hinting toward an early uptick of the flu season is a national baseline for the percentage of outpatient visits that were due to flulike illnesses. The percent of such visits reached the baseline (2.2%) this year during week 47 (Nov. 17-24). In the 2010-2011 season, such visits barely reached the baseline during the first week of 2011.

Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas reported the highest influenza-like illness activity during week 47. The lowest activity was reported in Ohio, Utah, and Virginia.

During this period, 6.3% of all reported deaths were due to pneumonia and influenza, which is below the epidemic threshold of 6.7%. Two influenza-related pediatric deaths have been reported so far this year.

Officials also said that they were encouraged by the vaccination rates among health care professionals. The early-season 2012-2013 flu vaccination rate among this group was at nearly 63%, similar to what was reported midseason the prior year. Pharmacists reported the highest vaccination rate (89%), followed by physicians (83%), nurses (82%), nurse practitioners and physician assistants (73%), and other clinical professionals (77%).

Also, nearly half of all pregnant women have been vaccinated so far this year, similar to numbers reported last year. The biggest trigger for this group's vaccination, said Dr. Frieden, is whether their obstetricians offer vaccination in the office, as nearly three-quarters of those pregnant women get vaccinated.

The CDC encourages everyone over 6 months of age to get flu vaccination. "The vaccine remains the best tool that we have," said Dr. Frieden.

"When you get together with your friends and family, be sure that you spread good cheer and you give presents, and that you don't share infections and spread the flu," he said.

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