Flu Season Hype or Hazard

Is this going to be the worst flu season in history?

That certainly seems to be how the media is playing it.

Have you read any of these articles?

  • California’s deadly flu season could be worst in a decade
  • Defending against this season’s deadly flu: 5 things to know
  • The CDC says this year’s flu may reach ‘epidemic’ proportions
  • Worst of deadly flu season may still be to come, Dallas County officials say
  • Texas Is Suffering Through its Worst Flu Outbreak in Decades
  • Hospital Overrun By Flu Cases Having To Turn Them Away
  • Get ready, some medical experts are predicting the worst flu season in history

Worst flu season in history? Really?

Flu Season Hazard

Flu season can be deadly.

That’s not hype.

That’s why every one should get a flu shot each year.

Early flu seasons can be bad.

Why? They overlap with RSV season. That means that everyone is sick at the same time with bronchiolitis, croup, colds, and the flu.

They are especially bad because many people haven’t taken the time to get their flu shot yet.

And an H3N2-predominant flu season can be especially bad. In addition to high levels of pediatric flu deaths, the CDC reports that the four flu seasons that were H3N2-predominant in recent years were “the four seasons with the highest flu-associated mortality levels in the past decade.” H3N2 virus strains drift easily, so that flu vaccines are less effective.

Flu Season Hype

Right off the bat, one big problem with most of these headlines, and the way that this year’s flu season is being hyped, is folks going out of their way to use the word “deadly” every chance they can.

Every flu season is deadly!

And guess what?

Flu season reaches “epidemic proportions” each and every year!

“The United States experiences epidemics of seasonal flu each year. This time of year is called flu season.”

CDC on Frequently Asked Flu Questions 2017-2018 Influenza Season

And we get to the point, in many cities, where a hospital fills up for a few days and has to turn away flu cases. It happens with RSV too. Its called a “code Yellow” in some hospitals.

The biggest problem with the current news coverage though, is that there is no evidence that this is going to be the worst or even among the deadliest flu seasons that we have seen.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says flu season runs from about September to May. Most years in Texas, a number called the ILI percentage — the number of patients doctors see with flu-like symptoms — checks in at about 2 percent or 3 percent during the offseason and crests to about 6 percent during the worst of the flu season. This year, according to a model developed by a Carnegie Mellon University team led by Roni Rosenfeld, Texas’ ILI percentage has already risen above 13 percent.”

“This is really record-breaking. In the last 20 years [the estimated number of people presenting flu symptoms] hasn’t reached that height,” Rosenfeld says. “It’s the highest it’s been this early in the season, and it’s the highest it’s been period.”

Dallas Observer on Texas Is Suffering Through its Worst Flu Outbreak in Decades

Do you know what is wrong with that report in the Dallas Observer?

texas-flu-season-ili

It misses that the ILI percentage was above 14% in Texas during the 2014-15 flu season too! So no records are being broken, especially since the number already seems to have peaked…

texas-flu-ili-more-years

The ILI percentage was actually between 10 to just over 14% for three out of four years recently.

Will hyping the flu to make it sound even more dangerous scare folks into getting a flu shot?

Probably not, as the media is also doing a good job of scaring folks into thinking that the flu shot isn’t effective this year!

Routine CDC Telebriefings during flu season used to be a good way of keeping this kind of hype down. We don’t seem to have them anymore…

(We did finally have one the week after I first posted this article though…)

Flu Season Hype or Hazard

What does any of this mean for this year’s flu season?

The New York Times has a good story, with a good headline to match:

An important take away from the story? It actually reports on a lower hospitalization rate this year than the 2014-15 flu season, a hopeful sign that this year’s flu season won’t be worst than many others.

So far, this year's flu season is closely following the 2014-15 flu season.
So far, this year’s flu season is closely following the 2014-15 flu season.

Why is the 2014-15 flu season important?

For one thing, looking at real data and not just trying to scare folks, we can say that this year’s flu season looks a lot like the 2014-15 flu season. That was also an H3N2-predominant flu season that got off to an early start, but tragically, ended up killing at least 148 children.

The 2014-15 flu season looked a lot like the 2012-13 flu season.
The 2014-15 flu season looked a lot like the 2012-13 flu season.

I’m sure that few people remember, but the 2014-15 flu season looked a lot like another  H3N2-predominant flu season – the 2012-13 flu season. That year, we also got off to an early start and again, tragically, we ended up with 171 pediatric flu deaths.

So, is this going to be a bad flu season?

Is there ever a good flu season?

It’s hard to predict, but the odds are strongly against this being the worst flu season in history or even the worst flu season this decade.

“Indicators used to track influenza-like-activity (ILI) are similar to what was seen during the peak of the 2014-2015 season, a season of high severity. The overall hospitalization rate is high also, but still lower than the overall hospitalization rate reported during the same week of the 2014-2015 season.”

CDC Influenza Situation Update

For one thing, although it might be higher in some states, the overall hospitalization rate is lower this year.

And about the same or fewer pediatric deaths have been reported so far (30 pediatric deaths) than at the same point in either the 2012-13 (29 pediatric deaths) or 2014-15 (56 pediatric deaths) flu seasons.

“The majority of the influenza viruses collected from the United States during October 1, 2017 through January 13, 2018 were characterized antigenically and genetically as being similar to the cell-grown reference viruses representing the 2017–18 Northern Hemisphere influenza vaccine viruses.”

CDC Situation Update: Summary of Weekly FluView Report

And we don’t have a mismatched flu strain or a strain that has drifted to be concerned about.

That doesn’t mean that the flu vaccine is going to work perfectly, by any means, but it should be at least 30 to 40% effective against the circulating influenza A(H3N2) viruses. Vaccine coverage against influenza A(H1N1) and B strains should be even better.

The best news, besides a very good supply of flu vaccines and anti-viral medicines, like Tamiflu, this year?

We saw the same H3N2 strain in the United States last year. Although that might not guarantee immunity if you had the flu last year, it should offer some protection against severe disease.

Also, we have some new flu vaccines, including the cell-based vaccine, Flucelvax, and high dose flu shots and flu shots with adjuvants for adults 65 years of age and older.

Still, like most H3N2-predominant flu seasons, it will at best be a moderately severe flu season.

Worst ever? That’s doubtful.

Ignore the hype, but don’t ignore the advice to get vaccinated and protected against the flu. It’s never too late to get a flu shot. Even with an early start, flu season will continue into the spring.

What to Know About Flu Season Hype or Hazard

Like other H3N2-predominant flu seasons, this year’s flu season will be moderately-severe, but warnings that it could be the worst flu season ever are likely just hype.

More on Flu Season Hype or Hazard

Updated January 20, 2018

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