Friday, April 15, 2011

Looking back at this flu season

May is just around the corner, and that means the end to the “official” flu season in the United States. That doesn’t mean we’re all now safe from the flu — flu cases are still occurring in every state and are widespread in New York and Maine — but it does mean the peak of cases has likely passed.
So now that the season has ebbed, it’s a great time for health officials to look back and see how things are going on the flu front. While official end-of-season evaluations aren’t in, there are some good findings in weekly U.S. surveillance reports. As of April 9, 91 flu deaths among children had been reported for the season, compared to 282 last flu season. Surveillance also shows 5,700 reported flu-related hospitalizations this season, compared to more than 7,500 last season.

Why the change? One possible reason is the H1N1 virus. The virus, which reached pandemic levels in 2009, was included in this season’s flu vaccine formula and therefore more people may have been protected. Cases of the virus have also waned worldwide, and it’s no longer considered a pandemic. H1N1 flu hasn’t disappeared, however. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that during the most recent week data was collected, 28 percent of U.S. flu cases were typed as the 2009 H1N1 influenza A strain.

The flu season news is not all good: Overall deaths from flu and pneumonia have been above the “epidemic threshold” for at least 11 weeks, with 8 percent of all deaths from a 122-city surveillance system linked to the two diseases. Drug resistance is also a continuing concern for health officials, who are monitoring flu virus samples for evidence of increasing resistance to drugs commonly used to fight the flu.

What this all means for next flu season is uncertain, as flu seasons are notably unpredictable. Annual U.S. deaths during the past four decades have ranged from 3,000 a year to 49,000 a year. So no matter what the final numbers for this flu season show, it’s important that once the new season rolls around this fall that we all line up again for our flu vaccinations.

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