Most of us think about the flu as an unpleasant yet not terrifying illness. It knocks you out faster and can leave you feeling weak and rundown for a lot longer than the cold, but otherwise many of us don’t see all that much differently than a really terrible cold. That is, unless you’re in the elderly age bracket, say somewhere above 65 or so. Then it all too frequently causes hospitalization and even death.
But this year even the young and indestructible can’t outrun the serious effects of the flu. The number of people between the ages of 18 and 64 that require hospitalization for the flu has doubled this year compared to previous years, with 61% needing intervention beyond a regular doctor’s visit. Last year that number was 35%. More than half of the deaths caused by flu this year are people between the ages of 25 and 64; only a quarter of flu deaths last year were in that age range. Though we tend not to give the flu much credit, it kills 4,000 to 50,000 people annually in the U.S. alone.
So why is this year’s flu outbreak so different? Is the strain more virulent? Are fewer people getting vaccinated? Did this year’s vaccine not hit the mark when it came to forecasting different strains? The Centers for Disease Control says only one-third of 18- to 64-year-olds had received the vaccine by November, a number that’s usually closer to 40 to 45%. Only 41% of both children and pregnant women, two groups that are highly susceptible to the flu, opted to get the vaccine this year. Though there hasn’t been as much talk about it this year compared to when it first emerged, the dominant strain this flu season appears to be the dreaded H1N1. (And yes, that strain was included in this year’s vaccine.) Influenza A (H3N2) and influenza B have also been noted. This year’s vaccine has shown to reduce the need for medical intervention by about 60%, whereas typically it decreases that need to 30 to 65%. Translation: they did a pretty good job this year, we’re just not getting the vaccine. The CDC also notes that younger and middle-aged adults tend not to have natural cross-protective immunity to the H1N1 strain like older adults might.
It doesn’t help that the flu has simply been everywhere this winter. Forty states have reported widespread outbreaks of the flu so far, which means more than half of the regions in each state are reporting the flu, and flu season’s not over yet. States in particular that have been struck hard include Texas, New York, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. The H1N1 strain, the one responsible for the “swine flu” epidemic of 2009 is particularly brutal. This is the first year since that outbreak five years ago that H1N1 has been the dominant strain. A violent strain coupled with most young adults sense of indestructability is a dangerous combination.
Interestingly enough, though spring already seems to be on the horizon, it’s not too late to get a flu shot. If that’s not the route you choose to take, let this be a reminder to wash your hands vigilantly and don’t play tough if you feel yourself coming down with something. This isn’t the time to act strong and unbreakable; it’s the time to get to the doctor, and quickly. Anti-virals for the flu are recommended in the first two days of the onset of flu symptoms.