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The 2017-2018 flu season—which is peaking right now—is shaping up to be a severe one, officials announced this week.
“We are currently in the midst of a very active flu season,” said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., who spoke at a media briefing today. Much of the country is experiencing “widespread and intense flu activity,” she said.
The announcement confirmed earlier predictions. Experts had suspected that the flu season in Australia, which peaked in mid-August and was especially severe, might herald a bad season in North America as well. (Austrialia is often seen as an indicator of how the flu might play out in the U.S., explains Jeffrey Shaman, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of environmental health sciences and director of Columbia University’s Climate and Health Program.)
Here in the States, during the first week of 2018, people were being hospitalized for flu at a rate of 22.7 per 100,000 people. That’s up from just 12.2 hospitalizations per 100,000 people during the same week last year.
Here’s what we know about this flu season, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Why Is This Flu Season Severe?
Preliminary estimates by the Australian government show that a virulent strain of influenza called H3N2 was most responsible for Australia’s unusually high number of flu cases, which resulted in 29,000 hospitalizations and 745 deaths in 2017, more than twice as many as the average over the previous five years.
According to the CDC, H3N2 is causing most of the cases of the flu in the U.S. right now as well. We know from past years that this strain is associated with more cases of the flu, more hospitalizations, and more deaths than other strains, according to Dan Jernigan, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s influenza division, who also spoke during the media briefing.
Evidence shows that the Australian flu vaccine, which is largely the same as the U.S. one, was only 10 percent effective against H3N2, according to a 2018 New England Journal of Medicine analysis. (The vaccine may end up having a slightly better track record against H3N2 in the U.S., according to early data—though not by much.)
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a flu shot, however.
“While each flu season may have a dominant strain, there are other strains of the virus that will circulate as well,” says William…