The U.S. winter flu season is getting an early start this year. Health officials tend to consider a flu season to be officially underway when a significant percentage of U.S. doctor’s office visits are due to flu-like illnesses for at least three weeks in a row. Officials with the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention says that has now happened, with 1.7 million flu illnesses, 16,000 hospitalizations, and 900 flu-related deaths nationally already.
According to health experts, there’s a chance that flu season will peak this month. That would be unusually early. Flu season usually doesn’t hit its peak until around February. Experts are on both sides of the fence on whether the early start will mean a lot of suffering is in store. Scott Epperson, who tracks flu-like illnesses for the CDC, says, “It really depends on what viruses are circulating. There’s not a predictable trend as far as if it’s early it’s going to be more severe, or later, less severe.”
According to the CDC, the flu is now widespread in 16 states with intense activity reported in 12. The most intense patient traffic had been occurring in six southern states stretching from Texas to Georgia. Louisiana began seeing large numbers of flu-like illnesses in October and health officials there say they have already seen more flu cases this fall than during all of last winter.
The flu virus causing illnesses in most parts of the country is one that typically doesn’t become prevalent until March or April. While this version generally isn’t as dangerous to older people, children and people younger than 50 can be hit hard. It’s too early to say how well the flu vaccine is performing right now. In both of the previous two flu seasons, the vaccine performed poorly against the predominant virus.