As we inch closer toward the thick of flu season, influenza activity is steadily picking up across the country — especially in the Southern states between Texas and Georgia.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source reported Friday that flu activity has been elevated for 4 weeks now, which is a little earlier than most flu seasons.
The last time flu activity picked up this fast and this early was during the 2003–2004 flu season, Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson, confirmed.
Between October 1, 2019, and November 30, 2019, there have been at least 1.7 million cases of the flu, about 16,000 hospitalizations, and nearly 900 flu-related deaths, according to Nordlund.
A sixth pediatric deathTrusted Source was reported this week, which was associated with an influenza B virus. Influenza B is the most common strain so far and is thought to cause a more severe illness in children.
Health experts predict that flu activity may peak earlier than usual this year. While we usually see flu activity summit in February, the worst of it may strike as early as December.
“While flu is difficult to predict, CDC flu forecasts suggest flu activity will continue to increase and remain elevated with a 40 percentTrusted Source chance that activity will peak in December, which would be relatively early compared to many of seasons,” Nordlund told Healthline, adding that it’s still not too late to get vaccinated.
Here are the strains going around
Twelve states plus Puerto RicoTrusted Source are now seeing widespread activity. A handful of Southern states, strung between Texas and Georgia, are being hit particularly hard.
For example, the Children’s Hospital New Orleans in Louisiana recently reported over 1,400 cases of influenza, whereas they’d only seen nine cases at this point in time last year.
And by November 30, Ochsner Health System in Louisiana had seen 1,385 percent more flu cases than they did in November 2018.
Fourteen other states — Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, and Virginia — are seeing moderate activity as well.
According to the CDC, there are three main strainsTrusted Source circulating: influenza A H1N1, influenza A H3N2, and influenza B/Victoria.
“Usually, we have one predominant influenza virus early in the season, with successive waves of other flu viruses as the season progresses. But this year so far we have significant co-circulation, nationally and in Connecticut, of three viruses — influenza A subtypes H3N2 and H1N1pdm09, as well as influenza B/Victoria,” says Dr. Marie-Louise Landry, a Yale Medicine infectious disease expert and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory.
Even though the B/Victoria strain is predominant now — which the CDC says is unusual for this time of year — that doesn’t mean it will continue to stay that way throughout the season.
The flu patterns that play out each year are unpredictable.
“A season can start off slow and then result in increased cases later, can be severe early and then end relatively early, or can be mild throughout,” Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, said, adding there’s no reliable way to know what’s coming next.
Go get the flu shot
According to Nordlund, it’s still too soon to know just how effective this year’s flu vaccine is.
“There is relatively little laboratory data on the characterization of viruses collected since October, so it’s not possible to make conclusions about how well the vaccine will work at this time,” Nordlund said.
On top of that, influenza strains may mutate each year, affecting how well the vaccine works, Maldonado said. Regardless, the flu vaccination is still your best shot at avoiding the flu and severe complications, including pneumonia, sinus infections, and heart inflammation.
“Though imperfect, vaccination remains our best chance to protect ourselves and our families against flu and its complications,” Landry said.
The bottom line
Flu activity continues to steadily increase across the country, with widespread activity currently striking the Southern states between Texas and Georgia.
The CDC says flu season is off to an earlier start this year, and we may see flu activity peak as early as December. It’s still not too late to get vaccinated, which remains your best bet at protecting yourself from the flu.