Federal health officials say this year's flu season shaping up to be especially severe for the elderly.
According to the latest update from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people age 65 and older who are getting the flu jumped sharply in the last week or so. They are being hospitalized at a rate of about 82 per 100,000 cases. That's the rate that is seen during severe seasons, officials said.
"It's shaping up to be a worse than average season, and a bad season for the elderly," CDC Director Thomas Frieden said during a Friday briefing, adding that the season may be about halfway over.
As a result, officials are urging the elderly to do whatever they can to avoid coming into contact with the flu. For example, they are urging grandparents to avoid caring for grandchildren who are sick and to seek immediate medical attention if they think they may be sick.
More than 5,000 people have been hospitalized because of the flu so far this year, the CDC says, and about half of those hospitalized have been elderly.
Meanwhile, the number of states reporting widespread flu activity has increased to 48, as California joined the list. That's not surprising, since the increase in flu has been spreading west, where the season got the latest start. To see the uptick in social media references to flu in California in the last five days, check out this map by the site Sickweather.
The proportion of deaths blamed on the flu remains at epidemic levels nationwide, according to the CDC update. Nine more children have died from the flu in the latest CDC data, which includes data through Jan. 12, bringing the total number of pediatric deaths so far this year to 29. The number of pediatric deaths varies widely from year to year.
"Even a single death of a child is one too many," Frieden said.
But the CDC says there are signs the flu may be easing in some parts of the country. The flu started earliest in the South and Southeast and Tennessee is now reporting only regional activity. The drop in laboratory-confirmed flu samples reported a week earlier has continued, along with the percentage of people going to the doctor for flu-like illness, the CDC says.
Officials have been warning that this year's season could be unusually nasty. That's because it started about a month early and because the main flu virus strain that's circulating is a so-called H3N2 strain. In past years H3N2 strains have made more people sick and killed more people than usual. But officials stress that it's too early to know how bad this year's season may end up being. That's because it started early it could end up ending early as well.
Health officials are still urging people to get a flu shot, stressing that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine's protection to kick in. This year's vaccine appears to be about 62 percent effective, making it about as effective as usual.
Officials announced the there's more vaccine available that had been estimated. About 145 million doses have been produced, up from the previous estimate of 135 million doses.
In addition, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg announced that the FDA was allowing the drug company Genentech to ship batches of Tamiflu with outdated instruction to help ensure availability of the antiviral drug.
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