CDC: Worst of Flu Season May Be Over

38 states report widespread activity, compared to 42 last week

THURSDAY, Jan. 8, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- U.S. health officials said Thursday they were cautiously optimistic that the flu epidemic has peaked in many areas of the country.

"We see that 38 states are now reporting widespread activity. That's down from 42 last week," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a press briefing.

"But we are not done with flu season yet," she added.

As of this week, deaths from flu and pneumonia have exceeded the epidemic threshold. However, it's too early to say whether deaths this year will exceed deaths in previous years, she noted.

The CDC estimates there are 185 million Americans at risk for flu and most never get vaccinated. Annually, about 36,000 die from flu in the United States. Many of these deaths are preventable with vaccination.

Gerberding added that "there is still lots of flu out there." She cautioned that flu is unpredictable and even though the peak may be over, "in past years we have seen flu come back and we have also seen new strains emerge."

Ninety-three children have died so far this season, Gerberding said. She added that "we don't have the data from previous years to really understand whether this represents an increase compared with previous outbreaks." She said the CDC plans to try to collect this information.

The children ranged in age from 4 weeks to 17 years, according to the CDC.

Since some of the children died of bacterial pneumonia, Gerberding said the CDC is advising physicians to test children to see if they need to be treated with antibiotics. In addition, the agency is advising doctors to be alert for drug-resistant bacteria, since it has been a problem in some of the deaths.

Turning to the availability of flu vaccine, Gerberding said there's plenty of the nasal vaccine, called FluMist, available for healthy adults. However, the supply of other vaccines, including pediatric vaccine, is spotty.

Dr. Nancy Cox, a flu expert at the CDC, said each flu season has its own characteristics: "The time it begins, the time it ends, how high it peaks, and the populations that are most affected."

"When you look back over the last 10 to 15 years, you see that there is not a general pattern. In some years we have seen a second wave of disease caused by a different virus," Cox said.

The 1992-1993 flu season offered a good example of a second wave, when a different strain of the virus struck, causing added deaths. "But this is more the exception than the rule," she said.

Gerberding said "this year flu started earlier, making this season unique." Complete data on deaths won't be available until the flu season is over in March, she said.

Gerberding also announced the CDC's "Germ Stopper Campaign," to help teach children how to prevent spreading flu and other respiratory diseases. The campaign is based on the concept that flu and colds are mainly spread by close contact, coughing and sneezing, and hand contact.

For future flu seasons, the CDC is working to ensure that people who need to be vaccinated for flu receive a shot. The agency is also looking at how to increase the vaccine supply and ways to make the vaccine more effective, Gerberding says.

In early December, the two main flu vaccine manufacturers -- Aventis Pasteur and Chiron Corp. -- announced that supplies, which totaled more than 80 million doses, were exhausted. They attributed the shortage to the early and severe start of the flu season, which led to unprecedented demand for vaccinations.

More information

For more on influenza and this year's season, check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the American Lung Association.

SOURCES: Jan. 8, 2004, press conference with Julie Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Nancy Cox, M.D., flu expert, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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