WEDNESDAY, Jan. 18, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Could this be the flu season that wasn't?
After the H1N1-linked drama of prior years, the low number of cases of influenza currently circulating in the United States is reassuring, experts said.
But that doesn't mean the virus couldn't still become the wily foe it so often is, they added.
"If you look at the nation as a whole, we are seeing low activity across the country," said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. He stressed, however, that flu season generally peaks in the first couple of months of the year.
"As we move to February, we expect that activity will increase," Skinner added.
Health-care providers across the country echoed those findings.
On the East Coast, all has been relatively quiet. "The activity is pretty low here," said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
And out West, the same situation holds true. "Certainly in the Southwest, it doesn't seem that activity has been high," said Angela Golden, president-elect of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. "Even in the urgent care [setting] we're not seeing a whole lot."
But Golden, who is based in northern Arizona, added that the season may simply be kicking into gear a little later than usual.
According to the CDC, by the end of the first week of January there was a slight uptick in flu activity, but it was still was considered low. Flu incidence was deemed "minimal" across 48 states, and while Colorado and New Hampshire showed slightly higher rates of illness than other states, it wasn't much more, CDC tracking data indicated.
One barometer of flu activity, the percentage of visits to hospitals or doctors' offices linked to influenza, also suggests a mild season so far. For example, just 1.4 percent of outpatient visits during the week ending Jan. 7 were for flu, the CDC said, compared to a seasonal average (over the past three years) of 2.4 percent. And just one in every 200,000 people had flu so severe that it required hospitalization, the CDC added.
The best news of all may come from statistics regarding children, who are particularly vulnerable to the flu. According to the CDC, no children in the United States have died from the flu so far, compared to the four pediatric flu-linked deaths that had already been reported by Jan. 1, 2011.
Still, experts stressed that the influenza virus's behavior is notoriously unpredictable, so current activity can't be relied on to predict the rest of the season. Still, there are some encouraging signs.
The strains being seen this year don't seem particularly virulent and are well-matched with this season's vaccine. "That's good," Skinner said. And the samples that have been tested are also apparently responsive to the antiviral medications Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir).
Only a small minority of samples (about 3.4 percent) are the H1N1 "swine flu," which first appeared in the spring of 2009. Horovitz also believes that this year's low level of flu activity may be due to more people getting vaccinated -- he said that his own practice is close to running out of vaccine, when normally he'd have a lot left over.
Experts can't know for certain that widespread vaccination is playing a role, Golden said, but "it's not too late to get the vaccine if you haven't already done so."
Skinner agreed. "The bottom line is that vaccination continues to be the single most important thing people can do to protect themselves from flu," he said.
Find out more about influenza at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.