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Flu Season Tame So Far

CDC expects activity to pick up in February

THURSDAY, Jan. 31, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Like the East Coast's weather this winter, the flu season has been remarkably tame, health officials say.

So far, at least, deaths from the viral infection are running at below-epidemic levels and the total caseload of disease is in the low range, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, health officials say influenza often peaks in February or even later, and they continue to urge people who haven't been vaccinated against the virus to get a flu shot as soon as possible.

"This season, unvaccinated persons can still benefit from influenza vaccine even if influenza activity has been detected in their community," says Dr. Timothy Uyeki, a flu researcher at the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases and a co-author of the latest report.

Between the end of September and the middle of this month, the nation's microbe labs had tested roughly 25,800 sputum samples and found that 1,299, or 5 percent, were positive for flu virus. The proportion of positive results more than tripled since Thanksgiving, surging from 3.9 percent during the week ending Dec. 1 to 13.9 percent in the week of Jan. 19th. Yet even that figure is well shy of what disease officials consider peak flu activity, when between about a quarter and a third of samples contain the virus.

Doctor visits for flu-like illnesses -- basically fever and sore throat -- accounted for about 2.2 percent of all appointments in the third week of January, a shade above baseline, officials say.

In that same period, deaths from flu and pneumonia in the 122 cities that report such fatalities made up 7.7 percent of total mortality. That's 0.4 percent below the epidemic threshold of 8.1 percent for that week, the CDC says. Deaths have stayed below epidemic levels for the entire reporting period, officials say.

Uyeki says this season's flu vaccine appears well-matched to the viruses that are circulating. "That's very good news," he adds.

Scientists have identified the dominant strains as A (H3N2), with scattered A (H1N1). Influenza B has also been detected.

Each year flu kills about 20,000 Americans, preying especially on the old and infirm.

Officials estimate that vaccine makers have about 10 million doses of flu shots on hand, and a smaller amount more could also be obtained if needed. CDC urges people who haven't gotten the shots to do so.

In addition, the agency also says a group of new antiviral medications can be effective at not only shortening the typical bout of flu by a day, but also protecting adults from getting infected.

Although health officials had feared that the anthrax attacks of the fall would prompt a run on the emergency care system as flu activity picked up, Uyeki says that hasn't happened.

So could the temperate weather have anything to do with this season's relatively toothless flu?

Not directly, says Robert G. Webster, an influenza expert at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Flu can strike anywhere, regardless of the weather. But warm spells might indirectly cut down on infections by encouraging people to be outside, rather than indoors, while the virus is circulating.

On the other hand, Webster says, "last year it was a cold winter and [the flu] was just as mild. It's hard to put it together."

What To Do

To learn more about the virus, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the American Lung Association.

For more on the flu vaccine, check out the CDC or the CDC's National Immunization Program.

SOURCES: Interviews with Timothy Uyeki, M.D., M.P.H., M.P.P., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Atlanta; Robert G. Webster, Ph.D., professor of virology and molecular biology, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tenn.; Feb. 1, 2002, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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