It is shorthand for nausea, fever, chills — misery, if not the fatal kind. But this year, with the country battling one of the worst outbreaks in recent memory, the flu is proving an efficient killer with few signs of slowing.
In Connecticut, 63 people have died from influenza as of Feb. 2, when the state’s Department of Public Health released its most recent report. The very old and very young are most vulnerable; a 10-year-old New Canaan boy died last month, the first Connecticut child claimed by flu.
The boy was among 63 children in the country who have died this flu season, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said Friday.
“I wish there were better news this week, but almost everything we’re looking at is bad news,” Anna Schuchat, the CDC’s acting director, said Friday.
Hospitals are reporting more patients with flu-like symptoms than during the 2009 H1N1, or “swine flu,” pandemic — although Schuchat stressed that this flu season is not a pandemic, which is the outbreak of a new disease that humans are not yet inoculated against. More people are being hospitalized with the flu than in any year since the CDC debuted its flu surveillance system in 2010. On the CDC’s flu tracker, the virus is deemed “widespread” in every state except Oregon and Hawaii.
As of this week — the 11th in what is typically an 11- to 20-week flu season — the death rate is not significantly higher than previous years, Schuchat said. But the number of flu-related hospitalizations — a portent of death — suggests the mortality rate will jump in coming weeks.
“Pneumonia and influenza deaths are not very, very high compared to previous years, but unfortunately more deaths are likely to happen,” Schuchat said. “Over the next few weeks it would make sense to see lots of pneumonia and influenza deaths. The people who are likely to die may already be in the hospital.”
The CDC did not say Friday how many adults had been killed by the flu. In the 2014-15 season, considered to be the most severe period since the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic, 56,000 people died.
Unusually, People between the ages of 50 and 64 seem to be very vulnerable to the flu this year. At this point, 63 in every 100,000 Americans of that age group have been hospitalized with the flu, Schuchat said — already more than the severe 2014-15 season, when 60 in every 100,000 of that age group were hospitalized. Those numbers are sobering, considering this flu season has yet to peak, Schuchat said.
In Connecticut, 1,360 people have been hospitalized with influenza as of last week. Connecticut is among 48 states where the flu is listed as “widespread” by the CDC, the agency’s most serious designation.
This flu season’s 63 deaths is two shy of last year’s total for the state, and Connecticut doctors say the virus shows no signs of relenting.
“I don’t think the season’s peaked yet at all,” said Nicholas Bennett, head of infectious diseases and immunology at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
There are four seasonal influenza strains that infect humans. This year’s most virulent strain — H3N2, which emerged in Hong Kong in 1968 — largely deflected the flu vaccine, Bennett said.
“Historically, that’s the virus that the vaccine is least effective for, and unfortunately it’s the one virus that’s circulating right now,” he said.
The flu shot is usually about 60 percent effective; although the CDC has yet to pinpoint the vaccine’s efficacy in the United States, in Australia, where the flu season ended about five months ago, the flu vaccine was 11 percent effective in foiling the H3N2 strain.
Schuchat, the CDC director, said Friday that the H3N2 strain was beginning to show signs of abating. But in a worrisome turn, about one in three people hospitalized with the flu this week tested positive for the Influenza B strain, she said, which the vaccine has historically kept in check.
A person can catch both H3N2, an Influenza A strain, and the Influenza B strain in the same flu season, Schuchat warned.
Bennett estimated that the flu shot has been about 30 percent effective against influenza strains overall. While not ironclad, the flu shot can keep the virus in check and help prevent deadly bacterial infections from setting in. “Almost without exception, the kids who end up in the hospital are un-immunized,” Bennett said.
Influenza can strip airways and lungs of their protective membranes, leaving them vulnerable to bacterial infections that immune systems — distracted and overtaxed from fighting the virus — are ill-equipped to fend off.
“I always worry when I hear someone had the flu, was on the mend and seemed to be getting better, and fell sick again,” he said.
In some young people, an overzealous immune system can also prove dangerous, said Jack Ross, chief of Hartford Hospital’s infectious diseases division.
Ideally, an immune system acts like “a teetor-totter,” Ross explained, barraging bacteria and viruses without attacking its own organs. But when a young, healthy body is battling a serious flu virus, it can be hard to rein in an immune system thrown into overdrive.
Hartford Hospital has seen 552 cases of flu, about half of which required hospitalization, Ross said.
The flu is made more lethal by the fact it is so pedestrian — it is not as exotic as Ebola or West Nile, and people “get blasé about it,” Bennett said.
“A lot of things that are not the flu get labeled the flu,” he said. People tend to mistake stomach bugs and bad colds for the flu; once they recover, they’re left believing they can beat the flu on their own, Bennett said.
Only 43 percent of adult Americans and 59 percent of children were vaccinated before or during last year’s flu season, according to CDC records. This season, 39 percent of adults and 39 percent of children had flu shots before the start of the season in November. Like Bennett, Ross said that while the flu shot is nowhere near fail-safe, it can guard against the virus’s most dangerous complications.
“People think they’re too busy with work or whatever they’re doing to get a flu shot,” Ross said. “But the important thing to think about is not ourselves, which is what we do when we choose not to get vaccinated. It’s to think about children — our own children, the children around us — and our grandparents, people who can fall seriously ill because of our decision not to get a shot.”
Nursing homes are taking extra precautions for the virus, which can be devastating among older people. Fifty-two of the 63 people who died of the flu in Connecticut were 65 or older.
“Given our population and their frailty, they take it very seriously,” said Jesse Wescott, director of senior services at The Retreat Assisted Living in Hartford. “Our population understands the ramifications, compared to younger people who figure they’ll just soldier through it. Our population understands that if they catch a bad strain and don’t have proper care, they could die.”