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Flu Trending Downward, But Still Hitting Elderly Hard

2/17/2013

Flu trending downward, but still hitting elderly hard
Elizabeth Weise,  USA Today

Last week, the proportion of people visiting the doctor for influenza-like illness was 3.2% of all doctor visits, down from 4.2% the week before.

With across-the-board drops in flu-like illness nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control is getting ready to bid adieu to this year's influenza season.

"I think it's safe to say that we're trending down," said Lyn Finelli, chief of influenza surveillance at CDC. "The activity started in the Southeast and South Central, around Texas, Arkansas, and we saw that area start to trend down a couple of weeks ago. Then it moved up to the Northeast and the Midwest and then to the West, where it was trending up until about a week ago and now is consistently trending down."

That doesn't mean it's over, however. "Maybe there's not as many people out there who are sick but flu is still all over," said Finelli. "We have 31 states that have flu in every corner of their state. So people should stay home if they're sick."

This year's season "was early, it was moderately severe as influenza seasons go and it's abating now," said William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and infectious disease expert. "We'll get smoldering influenza through the rest of February and a little bit into March, but we're seeing close to the end."

Five more children died of the flu during the week ending Feb. 9, bringing the season's total to 64. Figures for adults won't be available until the flu season ends.

This flu season began early, hitting the East hard beginning around Christmas time, almost a month earlier than usual, according to the CDC, but it is now waning earlier as well. One of the signals the CDC uses to indicate the official start of flu season is when more than 2.2% of all visits to the doctor nationwide are for flu-like illnesses. In non-flu months, such as the summer, about 1% of doctor visits are for flu-like illnesses.

Last week the proportion of people visiting the doctor for influenza-like illness was 3.2% of all doctor visits, down from 4.2% the week before, the CDC's FluView report showed. For the last week of December, when the east coast was getting slammed with flu, the rate was 5.6%.

Last week 9.1% of deaths reported in the CDC's 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System were from pneumonia and influenza as of Feb. 9. That's well above the epidemic threshold of 7.2% and about where it was the previous week, 9.0%.

People over 65 especially are being hospitalized at "dramatically high rates," said CDC's Finelli. In general, about 30 to 40 seniors are hospitalized per 100,000 in the population during flu season. This year it's around 140 per 100,000. "That's the highest rates for seniors we have ever seen," she said. This year's flu strains include H3N2, which hits older people especially hard, she said. That's why it's important that seniors get early and aggressive treatment.

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