The Big, Bad Flu of 2018


THIS FLU SEASON, a little more than halfway over, is turning out to be the worst in 10 years. Unusually, those ages 50-64 —rather than infants—are the second most likely to be hospitalized after those over 65.

“Baby boomers have higher hospitalization rates than their grandchildren right now,” said Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) influenza division.

Anyone who has not yet had a shot should get one—even those who have already had the flu, because there are several flu strains involved.  For those whose first bout was caused by Strain B—which occurs in about 10 to 15% of the cases, though most don’t get tested—there is little cross-protection, and this year Strain A (H3N2) is the worst culprit.

In 2018, we’re seeing more of the Influenza A-H3N2 than any other strain, according to Kristen Nordlund, press officer for the CDC. And any year in which this is the dominant strain tends to be worse than usual—like during the 2014-15 season, when an estimated 34 million people came down with the flu.

The reason: this year’s vaccine protection for H3N2 is estimated around 30% in the U.S., although small studies found it as low as 10% in Australia and around 17% in Canada.  Still, the vaccine is reported to reduce severity and duration of symptoms.

This flu season may well surpass that of 2014-2015, when 710,000 were hospitalized and about 56,000 died. “We’ll expect something around those numbers,” Jernigan said.

For three weeks straight, the health departments of 49 states (all except Hawaii) reported “widespread” flu activity.  California and the West Coast were hard hit, with four times as many people hospitalized as in 2014-2015, according to Jernigan.  Then New York and the Northeast began catching up. Intensity is high by two different CDC measures.

Flu activity for the past five flu seasons has remained elevated for about 16 weeks.  On Friday, February 9 about week #10— acting CDC Director Anne Suchat said: “We were hoping to have better news to share today, but unfortunately, it looks like the flu season continues to be particularly challenging. Our latest tracking data indicate that influenza activity is still on the rise overall. … We could potentially see several more weeks of increased threat.”

H3N2, which emerged in 1968 as the “Hong Kong” flu, was also responsible for bad seasonal flu in 1997-98 and 2003-04.   The most recent bad flu year, 2009, was the “swine flu epidemic” of H1NI, a new virus that was thus more difficult to combat.

Once flu strikes, the CDC recommends prescription antiviral medications like Tamiflu, which work best when taken within 48 hours of onset but can offer some benefits if taken later.  Antivirals decrease the flu virus’s ability to reproduce, shortening the severity of symptoms and helping prevent complications.

The way flu strikes makes it different from a cold. Within hours, symptoms can go from nonexistent to severe; and the first symptoms are often fever, up to 103 degrees and higher, and cough, as opposed to the scratchy throat and sniffles that usually precede common colds.

Also unusual about this season, at least anecdotally, is how long symptoms persist —especially a nagging cough—from both flu and garden-variety head colds.  Coughing can last for weeks, disturbing sleep as well as the peace of friends, fellow theater and movie-goers and airline passengers.

On airplanes, the most common advice is to rub Neosporin inside the nostrils; trying to avoid proximity to anyone coughing or sneezing; and not turning on the air-blowers, although other passengers’ behavior is hard to control.  Some swear by Airborne, which promises to boost the immune system with vitamins and antioxidants as well as the herbal supplement echinacea.  Others prefer wearing a mask.  Neither has been proven effective against flu.

For the latest information on symptoms to watch out for locally, check out this map.

—Mary Carpenter

Well-Being Editor Mary Carpenter writes our weekly posts about healthy living. Read more here.





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