Influenza is spreading in Europe and the United States at an unusually quick pace for so early in the winter season. The prominence of the virus is causing U.S. health officials to look for extra doses of this year's flu vaccine both at home and abroad.
The U.S. government's disease tracking agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that influenza has hit all 50 states at least sporadically, and is widespread in half of them, nearly twice as many as last week.
In Europe, the World Health Organization reports that flu activity has increased significantly in many nations, both those already hard hit by the virus and several where the number of cases is still low.
The CDC says the U.S. outbreak began unusually early this year and is currently at a level of intensity not normally seen until much later in the winter. It has killed 11 children so far, and some experts predict that the number of deaths this flu season could exceed the annual U.S. average of 36,000.
"Although we have not nationally crossed that threshold of officially calling it of epidemic proportions, it looks like it's heading in that direction," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government official in charge of infectious disease research.
The caseload is overwhelming U.S. vaccine supplies. The government ordered 83 million doses from a manufacturer because health officials say no more than 80 million have been necessary in past flu seasons. Now, U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson says the government is rushing another 100,000 doses across the country for adults and plans to have 150,000 new doses for children by January.
"We also will continue to look for other vaccines wherever possible. We're exploring all options for possibly purchasing, as you can well imagine, additional supplies," he said.
The CDC says it is negotiating with a British vaccine maker.
The problem is that this year's flu vaccine is imperfect. It does not contain the predominant strain in North America and Europe, the Fujian strain. But because of the genetic similarity among strains, Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding says the vaccine should offer some protection.
"We don't have scientific evidence to suggest that this year's influenza outbreak is worse than it has been in the past or that the strain is more virulent than strains that we have dealt with before," he said. "It's just simply too early in the course of the outbreak to say for sure how this will compare overall."
Because the flu vaccine is limited in its effectiveness and availability, Dr. Gerberding says people can take other steps to reduce the impact of the virus. These include rest, consumption of liquids, standard non-prescription medications, and anti-viral drugs.