Health officials across the United States are trying to cope with a worse-than-usual outbreak of influenza, commonly known as the flu. Deaths are on the rise in some areas and flu vaccine supplies are dwindling.
The flu season started in Texas in September and quickly spread to other western states. The Texas Children's Hospital in Houston normally treats about 10 flu patients a week during the autumn and winter months. This year the hospital reported a peak of 129 cases a week in October. The cases have diminished since then, but the flu spread to other states where similar outbreaks occurred.
In Colorado there have been more than 6,000 cases, about twice the norm. Lori Maldonado of the Colorado Public Health Department in Denver says children have been hit especially hard there.
"We have, to date, had nine deaths and they have all been children ranging in age from 14 months old to 15 years old," said Lori Maldonado. "Last year we had two children deaths reported to us, so this is more than we have seen in past years."
Ms. Maldonado says state health officials have urged people with children and persons over the age of 50 to be vaccinated. She says the flu threatens children and the elderly because they have lower resistance to infection. Vaccines, however, are becoming harder to obtain. Drug companies produced only 83 million doses this year as opposed to 95 million last year. Federal officials are working to locate extra vaccine in Europe for possible use in the United States. In the meantime, health officials are hoping the disease will soon subside.
Lori Maldonado says there are signs that the worst may be over for Colorado.
"This week we have received reports from our emergency room doctors who have said they are seeing a decreased number of flu cases," she said. "So we do not know yet if that means we have peaked, but we are seeing significantly lower numbers being reported."
But the flu is just beginning to take hold in several other states, from Washington, in the northwest, to Massachusetts in the east. At least 13 states have declared outbreaks so far.
Doctors say this does not constitute an epidemic, even though the numbers of cases are higher than normal. What worries them as each flu season begins, however, is the possibility of a flu strain spreading across the globe rapidly in what is called a pandemic. In 1918 and 1919, influenza killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide, 500,000 in the United States alone.
About one third of the world's population fell ill with the disease before it subsided. Even after the development of modern vaccination programs, the flu remained deadly. In the late 1960s flu outbreaks in Asia spread worldwide killing 1.5 million people and costing $32 billion in health costs and lost productivity.