Is the Flu Deadlier This Year?

Why do people seem to think that the flu is deadlier this year?

Everyone has a prediction about flu season, but it is still too early to tell if this year will be deadlier than others.
Everyone has a prediction about flu season, but it is still too early to tell if this year will be deadlier than others.

It seems like we get these kinds of warnings and predictions every year.

Is the Flu Deadlier This Year?

Is it true this year?

“Levels of outpatient ILI remain elevated; however hospitalization rates and percent of deaths due to pneumonia and influenza remain low. This is likely due to the predominance of influenza B/Victoria and influenza A(H1N1)pdm09 viruses which are more likely to affect children and younger adults than the elderly. Because the majority of hospitalizations and deaths occur among people age 65 and older, with fewer illnesses among that group, we expect, on a population level, to see less impact in flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.”

Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, Key Updates for Week 1, ending January 4, 2020

It is certainly true that we are seeing more pediatric flu deaths at this time of year than usual, but we don’t usually have such an early start to the flu season!

“This season so far has been particularly deadly for children, with 27 deaths reported through December 28. That’s the highest number of deaths at this point in the season since the CDC started keeping track 17 years ago.”

Elizabeth Cohen on US on track for one of the worst flu seasons in decades

If flu season also peaks and ends earlier than usual, than it might not end up being an overly severe flu season.

Will it be a deadly flu season?

Of course.

It’s flu season!

“The overall cumulative hospitalization rate was 14.6 per 100,000 population which is similar to what has been seen during recent previous influenza seasons at this time of year.”

Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, Key Updates for Week 1, ending January 4, 2020

But there is not yet good evidence that this season is or will be much worse or deadly than others.

Influenza-like Illness numbers don't say anything about the severity of flu illness.
Influenza-like Illness numbers don’t say anything about the severity of flu illness.

Or that this year’s flu vaccine won’t be effective. We won’t get a report on the effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine until next month.

“Although the V1A.1 and V1A.3 subclades are genetically distinct, sera from previous studies conducted among humans vaccinated with a V1A.1 virus cross-reacted well with B/Victoria viruses with a three amino acid deletion, such as the V1A.3 viruses. These findings suggest that vaccination with the current season’s vaccine might offer protection against circulating B/Victoria viruses.”

Early Season Pediatric Influenza B/Victoria Virus Infections Associated with a Recently Emerged Virus Subclade — Louisiana, 2019

And while we already know that this year’s flu vaccine isn’t a perfect match, it should offer protection.

Flu mortality surveillance data is still below epidemic threshold, although it is unlikely to stay there much longer.
Flu mortality surveillance data is still below epidemic threshold, although it is unlikely to stay there much longer.

Unfortunately, early flu seasons don’t always peak and end early. And they are sometimes among the worst, like the 2012-13 flu season. But that was an H3N2 season, which often are worse than others.

This year we are in new territory, having an early season that has been dominated by a flu strain B. Since it is not something we have seen before (at least not since the since the 1992–93 season), you can expect the unexpected, just like you should always do when it comes to the flu.

And know that there is really only one prediction that will end up holding true, that a yearly flu vaccine is the best way to protect your family from the flu.

More on Flu Deaths

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