Brace Yourself for a Tough Flu Season

U.S. health officials cite early outbreaks in several states

MONDAY, Nov. 17, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- U.S. health officials are predicting a nasty flu season this year, based on early activity in many states.

"We're concerned that the flu season has had an earlier onset and we are seeing some parts of the country that are having very high levels of widespread flu infection," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said at a news conference Monday.

Texas and Colorado, in particular, are already experiencing heavy flu activity, she said, adding that people shouldn't wait to get their shots.

Not only is influenza more widespread earlier in the season than in previous years, but a different strain has also been detected. That new strain has been associated with more severe disease and higher death rates. It is also slightly different from the strains found in this year's vaccine, although Gerberding stressed that the vaccine being offered now will most likely offer cross protection.

Approximately 114,000 Americans are hospitalized for the flu each year, and 36,000 die from it.

Gerberding stressed the assessment offered Monday was only a prediction, and people can still change their fortunes by getting vaccinated.

While "anyone who wants a flu shot should get a flu shot," she said, certain groups are at higher risk for serious influenza and should be serious about getting the vaccine.

According to the CDC, those groups include:

  • people over the age of 50;
  • those who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities;
  • children between the ages of 6 months and 23 months;
  • adults who have chronic heart or lung conditions, metabolic diseases such as diabetes, or weakened immune systems.

Another group should be lining up for the flu shot: Health-care workers. Not only can they get the flu from patients, health-care workers can also transmit the virus to family members or others who live in their household and back to patients. Historically, vaccination rates among this group of people have been less than 50 percent.

"It is not just a good idea," said Gerberding, who just received her flu vaccine. "I think it is a responsibility for health-care workers to provide that extra level of protection for themselves, their families and their patients."

"The flu shot is very safe," Gerberding continued. "The main complication is a sore arm and I think that's one we agree would be a minor price to pay for the enormous benefit this provides not only for us but for the people we care about."

Theoretically, people can get a flu shot any time during the flu season, which usually lasts till March. The CDC recommends getting the vaccine sooner rather than later, so you're protected when the illness spreads through your community. Keep in mind that it takes about two weeks to build up maximum protection after the shot.

So far this year, there has been no evidence of SARS in the United States, Gerberding said. All cases of the flu appear to be just that -- the flu.

More information

The American Lung Association has an online flu shot locator while the CDC has all kinds of information on the flu.

SOURCE: Nov. 17 teleconference with Julie Gerberding, M.D., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Consumer News