CDC says flu outbreak widespread, too early to determine severity
Vaccination and prevention will play a vital role in battling the 2013 influenza outbreak in the United States. But the CDC says determining the severity of the outbreak and forecasting how long it will last will be difficult.
Hospitals across the nation are filling up and reports of deaths relating to complications of the flu are mounting.
In Boston, the flu outbreak has been so severe, Mayor Thomas Menino has declared a public health emergency.
Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch at the Center for Disease Control's Influenza Division, says it's too early to determine how severe this year's strain of the flu is. And there's no way to forecast the duration of the outbreak.
"I think what’s unusual about this season is the early nature of it. We’re not used to seeing this much flu, this early in the season. We usually get peaks around February or March," he said.
Though the current influx of cases is unusual, Bresee says, the early outbreak is a good reminder that the flu can be life-threatening.
Each year in the U.S., the flu causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and can lead to death.
"I think it's a reminder that a flu year, whether it's an average flu year or a severe flu year, can lead to a lots of severe disease in a lot of people," he said.
This year, the CDC says vaccine rates are running about the same as last year, with a lot of people choosing to get vaccinated, Bresee said. Part of the problem, though, is not enough people get vaccinated early, in order to prevent the widespread transmission like we’re seeing now, he said.
“Last year we ended up getting to a little less than half the people in the U.S. vaccinated. We think that’s good by historical standards, but it’s still far below what we’d like to achieve," he said
This year's vaccine contains three strains of the flu, Bresee said. Each year, vaccine manufacturers have to try and predict what strains of flu will be particularly present, with a risk of being wrong.
“We track flu all around the world all year, all the time and have to make decisions about what goes in the vaccine a full 10 months before the season starts," he said. "This year it looks really good, well over about 90 percent of the strains that we’ve characterized, which has been several hundred strains in the U.S. this year, look very much like the vaccine strain."
The vaccine is still widely available, Bresee said, but he suggests calling ahead to secure a shot. By getting vaccinated you’ve taken the first step to reducing the severity of this season's flu outbreak.
But if you do catch the flu, he said, it's important to take the medications suggested to help yourself feel better and prevent further complications.
Other prevention methods are as simple as covering your mouth when you cough to prevent infecting people sitting by you, washing your hands and staying home when you're sick.
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