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US Flu Season Proves Unusually Severe So Far

FILE - A boy gets a flu shot at a health care clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, Jan. 12, 2013.
FILE - A boy gets a flu shot at a health care clinic in Boston, Massachusetts, Jan. 12, 2013.

Health experts say the influenza season in the United States is proving to be more severe than usual, with about twice the number of people reporting flu-like illness to their doctors compared with the same time last year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in the week ending December 23, 36 states reported widespread flu. The agency said that nearly 2,500 people have been hospitalized for flu-related symptoms and that 13 children have died of the virus in the current season, which started in October.

The CDC said that across the nation, about 5 percent of patients saw their doctors for flu-like symptoms in the week ending December 23, compared with 2.2 percent of patients doing so during the same week in 2016.

Hospitals in California are particularly overwhelmed, with some Southern California pharmacies running out of flu medication. Health officials told the Los Angeles Times on Friday that 27 people younger than 65 had died of the flu in California since October. Only three people died of the flu in the same time period a year ago.

Medical experts say this year's strain of influenza may just be peaking early in the season. By February last year, flu deaths had gone from the three reported in December to 68.

Experts say it is also possible that this year's dominant strain, H3N2, is more resistant to treatment than some others. Health officials say more people may be getting ill because the vaccine is less effective against H3N2.

Los Angeles County's interim health officer, Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, told the Times that this strain of flu causes more hospitalizations and more deaths than other strains that respond better to treatment. He said influenza is especially dangerous for the elderly, who are at greater risk of developing pneumonia or other complications along with the flu — conditions that could be fatal when combined.

Gunzenhauser said vaccination against influenza lowers one's chances of catching the flu or being a carrier. Also, if the flu does later strike someone who has been vaccinated, his illness is likely to be less severe.

The stakes are low, Gunzenhauser said, noting that the worst side effect from the shot is likely to be "a sore arm."

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