- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2019

The U.S. is experiencing its earliest start to the winter flu season in more than 15 years, largely due to an influenza strain that has dominated at an unusual time of year.

About half of the states have moderate to high flu activity, mostly caused by influenza B/Victoria viruses, which typically don’t appear until later in the flu season.

Many of the Southern states are experiencing high flu activity, and Maryland and Virginia have moderate activity. The spread of the flu in the District of Columbia is “sporadic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Nationally, flu activity is increasing and has been elevated for four consecutive weeks. This represents somewhat of an early start to the U.S. flu season,” said CDC spokesman Scott Pauley. “It is unusual for there to be this much influenza B activity at this time of year. Flu season has started, but it’s not too late to get vaccinated.”

Health officials consider a flu season to be underway when a significant proportion of doctor’s visits are due to flu-like illnesses for at least three weeks in a row.

The last flu season to start this early was back in 2003-2004, the CDC said.

The CDC estimated Friday that there have been at least 1.7 million flu illnesses, 16,000 hospitalizations and 900 flu-related deaths nationally.

Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said health officials are concerned that this will be a prolonged and severe influenza season, noting how flu activity started early and quite vigorously.

He noted it is difficult to predict flu seasons and said there is a great deal of variation in when the flu season will peak.

“If you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season,” Dr. Schaffner said, commenting on how flu activity might last longer or how it might taper off in three weeks.

“Who knows,” he said. “We just don’t know. Most of us have stopped trying to predict what the flu will do.”

But he said the flu will, for certain, make a lot of people sick.

Dr. Schaffner said A strain viruses usually cause large outbreaks early on in the season, not B strains. He said B strains tend to affect children more than middle-aged or older adults.

Influenza activity is currently widespread in 16 states, including Virginia, the CDC reported.

Flu activity is high in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. Puerto Rico is also experiencing a lot of activity.

New York City and 14 states, including Maryland and Virginia, are experiencing moderate flu activity.

“Last season, we hardly had any influenza B activity. Whether that has anything to do with influenza B being the dominant strain currently would be pure speculation,” said Litjen Tan, chief strategy officer for Immunization Action Coalition. “Influenza A strains may still appear so we cannot be complacent with the flu. We need to keep vaccinating and paying attention to the evolution of the current flu season.”

Everyone 6 months and older is recommended to get a flu shot each season.

Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness. Older people, young children and people with certain health conditions are at high risk of developing serious flu complications such as pneumonia, heart and brain inflammation and organ failure.

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