Jan. 18, 2013 -- This flu season is shaping up to be worse than average, and particularly so for seniors, who represent roughly half of the hospitalizations and 90% of the deaths so far, the CDC said today.
According to the CDC, the flu turned more brutal during the second week of 2013, which ended on Jan. 12.
The percentage of deaths from flu and pneumonia in 122 cities stood at 8.3%, which was above the epidemic threshold. The death rate for the first week of 2013 was 7.3%. And nine more children died from the flu in week two, bringing the childhood death toll this season to 29.
In addition, the number of hospitalizations associated with the flu rose from 13.3 per 100,000 population in the first week of 2013 to 18.8. The rate for seniors increased to 82 per 100,000, "which is really quite a high rate," said CDC Director Thomas Frieden, MD, at a press briefing today.
The flu always takes the heaviest toll among the elderly, he said, but even more so when the predominant virus strain is flu A (H3N2), which is the case this season.
The number and rate of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths will rise in the coming weeks even as overall flu activity across the country is going down, said Frieden. This pattern reflects a lag time between the time when the flu is first diagnosed and when patients develop complications, go to the hospital, and sometimes die.
"We see those coming in waves," he said.
The big picture of the flu, however, includes states such as California, Arizona, Hawaii, and Nevada, where flu-like illness rates are rising. "Folks out West, you still have most of the flu season still to come," Frieden said. The virus typically spreads from east to west across the country.
The sharp rise in both hospitalizations and deaths underlines the need for taking the antiviral drugs Tamiflu or Relenza within 48 hours of flu symptoms, Frieden said. This immediate treatment is especially important for high-risk people such as the elderly, young children, and those with serious underlying conditions such as asthma and heart disease.
"When given promptly, they work," Frieden said. "They can reduce symptoms, shorten the duration of illness, and prevent serious complications including hospitalization and death.
"What we're seeing is not as many people getting treated with Tamiflu."
The rate of Tamiflu treatment has dipped this year compared with the 2009-2010 flu season, when "people were a little more attuned to this," Frieden said.
He advised doctors to immediately prescribe antiviral drugs for patients reporting flu symptoms, even if they test negative with a rapid flu test. The test, he said, can be wrong.
In response to spot shortages of Tamiflu, the medication's manufacturer, Genentech, is releasing a reserve stock.
In a news release, Genentech said it "anticipates having sufficient supply of Tamiflu capsules to meet demand for this flu season."