The annual flu epidemic is spreading steadily across the U.S., officials reported Friday, with “elevated” activity in all regions of the country now.
While it’s not worse than the average flu season yet, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say they’re keeping a close eye out because the main strain making people sick is H1N1, which may hit young adults harder than the usual mostly elderly victims. “What we wonder now is whether there is a greater risk among kids and young adults,” CDC flu expert Dr. Joe Bresee says.
Flu kills people every year — anywhere between 3,000 and 49,000 a year, depending on the season. CDC doesn’t keep an ongoing tally of deaths for adults, but 10 children have died of influenza so far this flu season, and more than 2,600 have ended up in the hospital.
“Technically, we are in the epidemic of flu, but that is what we see every year,” Bresee told NBC News. Flu activity started in the southeast and south-central part of the country and is now spreading to the Midwest. But deaths have not yet reached epidemic levels.
CDC says 20 states have high levels of flu, while activity is still minimal in 12 states: Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
Hospital emergency rooms often get overwhelmed with flu patients and this year is no different. The Regional Medical Center in San Jose, Calif., set up a tent in its parking lot this week to handle patients who can be seen quickly and sent home. Many hospital emergency departments are chronically full and experts say it's best to keep patients with infectious diseases such as flu away from other patients.
It’s not too late to get vaccinated. CDC says the flu vaccine kept nearly 80,000 people out of the hospital last year, and prevented 6.6 million cases of flu. CDC and other groups struggle to encourage Americans to get vaccinated.
Drugs can also help people if they get treatment within a day or so of getting sick. There’s a pill called Tamiflu that can cut a few days off the course of illness – typically fever, muscle aches, cough and exhaustion.
Right now the maker says there are spot shortages of the oral suspension, formulated for very young children or people who cannot swallow, but Bresee says it’s not an emergency. “We have seen this before. You can actually create a suspension out of the tablet,” he says. Any pharmacist can do it.
Spot shortages of drugs are common in the U.S., where the free market governs supplies. The company that makes Tamiflu, Genentech, says it's a packaging issue and should be resolved by next week.
The H1N1 strain that is making most people sick first popped up in 2009, causing the swine flu pandemic. It hasn’t dominated the circulating mix of flu strains since so CDC is watching to see if that changes the pattern of illness. Younger adults may be more susceptible, and these are the people least likely to have been vaccinated.
Timothy Day is one of this year’s victims. “I woke up Wednesday with a temperature of 103.7,” Day said from his hospital bed at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.
Day knew he was at high risk because he has a severe heart condition and is on the waiting list for a heart transplant. He got vaccinated, but caught flu anyway. “They told me the vaccine was not a guarantee,” says Day, 46, who went right into the hospital for treatment and observation because of his condition. “I was pretty wiped out but fortunately, other than a fever and the aches I haven’t had any other symptoms.”
People who have other chronic conditions, like diabetes or asthma, are more likely to become very ill from flu.
Day, a police officer currently on sick leave while he waits for a heart transplant, said the flu had been going around his daughter’s school. His wife and 7-year-old daughter are also sick, but haven’t been tested for flu. They were vaccinated, also.
The best way to protect yourself, CDC says, is to get vaccinated and wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.