'Bad news' this season as flu cases near 2009 highs

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This flu season is now nearly as bad as the 2009 swine flu pandemic, causing mounting hospitalizations and deaths, according to a shocking government report released yesterday.

One of every 13 visits to the doctor in the U.S. last week, or 7.6 percent, was for flu symptoms such as fever, sore throat and cough, almost matching the 7.7 percent at the peak of swine flu and surpassing every flu season since 2003, when the government changed the way it measures the flu.

“I wish that there were better news this week, but almost everything we’re looking at is bad news,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The amount of suspected flu cases at doctor’s offices and hospital emergency rooms last week just about matched the level seen in 2009, when a new swine flu pandemic swept the world. Swine flu, also called H1N1, was a new strain that hadn’t been seen before. Although it first hit that spring, doctor visits peaked in late October during a second wave.

This flu season, hospitalization rates have surpassed those in the winter of 2014 to 2015, when the vaccine was a poor match to the main bug.

Last week, 43 states had high patient traffic for the flu, up from 42, according to the CDC. Flu remained widespread in every state except Hawaii and Oregon, and hospitalizations continued to climb.

“Overall, hospitalizations are significantly higher than what we’ve seen (in the past) for this time of year,” Schuchat said.

During a bad year, there are estimated to be as many as 56,000 deaths linked to the flu in the U.S.

In Massachusetts, the state Department of Public Health estimates between 250 and 1,100 people die annually from complications of influenza.

Small children and the elderly are particularly at risk.

So far this season, the CDC has counted 63 flu-related deaths in children, a number that has gone as high as 170 in the past.

But reports of deaths — some in otherwise healthy children and young adults — have caused growing fear and concern, health officials said.

One reason for those reports could be that the Bay State has seen an increase in Influenza B, which tends to affect younger people, state Epidemiologist Alfred DeMaria said.

And it’s not uncommon for there to be a second wave of Influenza B later in a season, Schuchat said.

“This happens to be a particularly bad flu season, and it hasn’t peaked yet,” DeMaria said. “People need to start worrying about the flu in September and October to reduce their risk.”

But it’s not too late to get a vaccination — something everyone should do, he said, particularly because Influenza B is on the upswing.

“It may not prevent you from getting the flu,” DeMaria said, “but it could prevent you from having to be hospitalized.”

Herald wire services contributed to this report.

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