Americans aren't out of the woods yet, as the flu season continues to spread across the country, health officials reported Friday.
One major shift that's occurred is in the viruses that are circulating. At the start of the flu season, the predominant strain was influenza A H1N1, but now a more severe strain, influenza A H3N2, accounts for nearly half of all the new cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It looks like we are moving from an H1 wave to an H3 wave," said Lynnette Brammer, lead of CDC's domestic influenza surveillance team. "There's still a lot of flu to come."
On the plus side, this year's vaccine is more effective than last year's was. According to Brammer, this vaccine is 62 percent effective against H1N1 and 44 percent effective against H3N2.
For children aged 6 months to 17 years, overall vaccine effectiveness is 61 percent, according to the CDC.
Getting kids vaccinated is crucial. This season, flu has already claimed the lives of 41 children.
Behind that statistic lie very real tragedies and heartbreak:
- In Lowell, Mass., CBS News reported that 4-year-old Puthiraksmey Paak passed away Feb. 16 due to complications from flu. Her heartbroken father, Sopheak Paak, said his family had recently moved to the United States from Cambodia in search of a better life.
- In San Diego, NBC News reported the first child death this season from flu in that city occurred when Julie Leyva Campos, 14, succumbed to the illness Feb. 12. Family members said she hadn't gotten a flu shot and had an unspecified underlying medical condition.
- And on Feb. 18, an 8-year-old boy, Martin Ray "Chucky" Campbell Jr., of Rockport, Texas, died only hours after being diagnosed with flu, NBC News reported. "He had a lot to say and now it's just quiet," Campbell's aunt, Jessica Solis, told NBC.
So, Brammer is still urging people who haven't been vaccinated to get their shot. "As long as flu is circulating and you haven't been vaccinated, we recommend that you go ahead and get vaccinated," she said.
In terms of the severity of the season, Brammer said that no flu season is mild. The severity of the season is simply a comparison between seasons. "There are no good flu seasons," she said.
The death toll of flu among adults -- many of them the frail elderly -- is high. So far this year 22,300 adults have died from flu, Brammer said, and more than 250,000 people have been hospitalized.
That's still much lower than last year's death toll, which topped 80,000. But the flu is still around, so more people will be hospitalized and die, Brammer said.
If more people were vaccinated, the number of deaths and hospitalizations could be drastically reduced, she noted.
Brammer stressed that if you get vaccinated but still get the flu, your illness will be milder than if you hadn't gotten the shot. It's also important that anyone who's around babies and older adults get a flu shot.
"Vaccinating the family provides a ring of protection around the baby, or any other family member at high risk for flu," she explained.
The CDC stressed that everyone over 6 months of age should get the flu shot.
Last year, vaccination was estimated to prevent 7.1 million illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, 109,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths, the CDC reported.
As of Feb. 16, flu is widespread in 48 states, and 30 states are experiencing high levels of the disease. In addition, hospitalizations are increasing, the CDC researchers found.
According to the CDC, flu activity is high in New York City and 30 states including Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
If you get the flu, antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza can make your illness less severe. But if you're sick, the CDC recommends that you stay home so you don't infect others.
For more on the flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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