By Mary Brophy Marcus
THURSDAY, Feb. 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- The flu is hitting younger and middle-aged adults unusually hard this season, but getting vaccinated reduces the need for a doctor's care, U.S. health officials said Thursday.
People aged 18 to 64 represent 61 percent of all flu hospitalizations this flu season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This age group accounted for only about 35 percent of flu-related hospitalizations the last three seasons, officials said at a CDC news conference.
"We think one of the reasons flu is hitting younger adults hard is that such a low proportion get a flu shot, even those with underlying conditions like asthma, COPD, and diabetes," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden at the news conference.
"The bottom line is, influenza can make anyone very sick, very fast and it can kill. Vaccination every season is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself," he added.
More deaths than usual have occurred among younger and middle-aged adults this season, too. People 25 to 64 years old have accounted for about 60 percent of flu deaths -- triple the rate for that age group three seasons ago, the CDC said.
Flu activity will likely keep up for several more weeks, especially in places where flu surfaced later in the season, the CDC officials noted. Southern states, especially Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, saw an early spike in flu activity this season. During January, flu activity decreased in the Southeast and South Central states but picked up in the West and Northeast, health officials said.
The currently circulating H1N1 virus, which is striking younger adults, emerged in 2009 and triggered a pandemic. H1N1 viruses have continued to circulate since the 2009 pandemic, but this is the first season since then that they have predominated in the United States, according to the CDC officials.
While flu hospitalizations are still highest among the elderly, adults aged 50 to 64 now have the second-highest hospitalization rate followed by children up to 4 years old. During the 2009 pandemic, people 50 to 64 years also had the second-highest hospitalization rate, the CDC said.
"Younger people may feel that influenza is not a threat to them, but this season underscores that flu can be a serious disease for anyone," said Frieden.
He stressed the value of vaccination. The current flu vaccine has cut the risk of needing medical care for flu-related problems by about 60 percent across all ages, he said, noting that's "encouraging."
However, by November, only one-third of 18- to 64-year-olds had been vaccinated. "That's why we're seeing more hospitalizations and deaths" in that age group, he noted.
Frieden said it's important to remember that some people who get vaccinated may still get sick. "People at high risk of complications should seek treatment if they get a flu-like illness. Their doctors may prescribe antiviral drugs if it looks like they have influenza," he explained.
Dr. Len Horovitz, an internist and pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said six of his patients in the last three weeks -- mostly young adults -- who were vaccinated still had symptoms and tested positive for influenza after a nasal swab test.
He urged people who think they have the flu to see their doctors sooner rather than later if flu symptoms arise. "It's important to see a physician if it's in the first 24 to 48 hours because you can treat with [the antiviral drug] Tamiflu, even in people who have been vaccinated," said Horovitz.
People at high risk for flu complications include pregnant women, people with asthma, diabetes or heart disease, the morbidly obese and people older than 65 or younger than 5 years, but especially those younger than 2 years.
The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an annual flu vaccine. "This season vaccinated people were substantially better off than people who did not get vaccinated," Frieden said.
Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, stressed it's not too late to get a flu shot.
"I want to remind you that the season is not over and things could change," she said at the press conference.
"If you're walking behind someone coughing who has flu, even outdoors, droplets are more sustained in cold air than warm air, so cover your face," Horovitz added.