According to public-health experts, we are in the middle of one of the worst influenza epidemics in the last five years.
As of this writing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 15 child deaths attributed to influenza. Many more flu-related adult deaths have occurred, mostly as a result of pneumonia complicating the illness.
The most severe strain this year appears to be a variant of the H3N2 virus associated with the 2009 swine-flu epidemic, which was the last year with a comparably bad flu season. This strain has been around since then but changes a little each season because of mutations in the virus.
Influenza is widespread across the U.S., including in Colorado, where outbreaks have been confirmed for many weeks now. As is typical of the seasonal influenza epidemic, as we head into January, cases are increasing. January and February tend to be peak months for flu, although it is not unusual to see flu activity into March or April.
One frustration this year is the fact that the H3N2 component of the annual flu vaccine appears to be a poor match, perhaps offering less protection than earlier years. Each year, to permit time for production, the formula for the flu vaccine is prepared in the spring for the next flu season. From time to time, virus mutation in the interval can make the vaccine less effective.
CDC experts are still recommending flu vaccination for people of all ages this year but most especially for those at higher risk of flu complications, such as the elderly, those with chronic illness and children. Even if the H3N2 component of the vaccine is not a perfect match, the vaccine may provide some immune protection. Also, the vaccine contains components for two to three other flu strains (depending on which brand vaccine you get).
Flu is different from a lot of other viral illnesses circulating this time of year. On the whole, it tends to be more severe. Most flu sufferers develop high fever, tiredness or weakness, runny nose, sore throat, cough and aches. Fortunately, most people recover without further problems. A few may develop secondary bacterial infections, including pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.
Early recognition of flu (within the first one to two days ideally) can enhance treatment options. Those in high-risk groups – such as children, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions – may benefit from use of anti-viral medication, such as Tamiflu.
In addition to vaccination, proper hygiene can reduce spread of the flu. Those who are sick with fever should generally stay home to reduce spread of the illness. Covering coughs or sneezes as well as frequent and thorough hand-washing or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer also has proved effective in preventing spread.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.