by Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
Flu activity remained high in the United States through Jan. 13. It is decreasing in the southeast but picking up in the west, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. Twenty-nine children have died as a result of the flu since the season's start.
National influenza rates dropped to 4.3% as of Jan. 13, down from 4.8% the week before, said Tom Frieden, director of the CDC. The nation is "in the middle of flu season, about halfway through and it's shaping up to be a worse than average season and a bad season particularly for the elderly," said Frieden.
Although there's no national reporting system for adult flu-related deaths, the CDC said that 8.3% of deaths reported in its 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System were due to pneumonia and influenza. That's above the epidemic threshold of 7.2%. The rate of deaths linked to pneumonia and flu the week before was 7.3%.
The rate of hospitalization for people 65 and older due to the flu increased sharply over the past week, up to 82 per 100,000 "which is quite high," said Frieden. "We expect to see the number and rate of hospitalizations rise further as the flu epidemic progresses."
Hospitalizations, complications and death come after people first get ill, so even if illnesses are dropping, hospitalizations and deaths will continue to increase, said Frieden. Although the nation may be halfway through the flu season, it's important to remember that the flu is unpredictable, he said.
Forty-eight states reported widespread geographic influenza activity, but the wave is beginning to wane in some areas, CDC said. However, cases are beginning to pick up in California. "Particularly for people out West, you probably have most of the flu season still to come," said Frieden.
He emphasized that it's still not too late to get vaccinated, and that if you do get the flu, seeking out treatment, especially anti-viral drugs, can be helpful in limiting the duration and severity of the illness.
In other flu news, the company that makes Tamiflu, an antiviral drug used to lessen the severity of flu in those exposed to the virus, has released reserve stocks to lessen shortages in some parts of the country.
"With the addition of these reserve supplies, we anticipate having sufficient supply of Tamiflu capsules to meet demand for this flu season," spokeswoman Tara Iannuccillo said.
The liquid form of the drug, given to children because they can't easily swallow pills, has been difficult to find. Genentech, of South San Francisco, has worked with the Food and Drug Administration to get more 75-milligram capsules of the drug on the market in the United States, Iannuccillo said. Pharmacists can mix the contents of the capsules with a sweet liquid to make a drug that children can easily take.
The company is also working to get new shipments of the liquid form of Tamiflu "to distributors as new supplies of this formulation become available," Iannuccillo said.
There have been localized shortages of flu vaccine as people scrambled to get vaccinated. The CDC anticipates there will be enough vaccine available for everyone who wants it but that they might have to try several providers to find someone with it in stock, spokesman Tom Skinner said.
Next year's flu season should bring more vaccine and more vaccine options. The FDA has approved two new flu vaccines that are grown in cells, rather than fertilized chicken eggs. One is called Flublok, and the other Flucelvax. The cell-culture technology "will improve the reliability and flexibility of supply for future seasons" said Flucelvax spokeswoman Sarah Coles. The technology is already being used to make other FDA-approved vaccines.
A vaccine grown on cells rather than in chicken eggs is not only faster but is accessible to the 600,000 Americans estimated to have egg allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The allergy is most common in children, and 70% of people outgrow the allergy by age 16.
It will also make the vaccine accessible to strict vegans who eat absolutely no animal products, including milk, eggs and honey.
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