Flu killing thousands weekly and 114 pediatric deaths so far this flu season (Caleb Wagoner/Flickr)
Seeing the wide disparity in the number of flu-related deaths is initially alarming: 114 total pediatric deaths as of Feb. 24, but thousands of deaths per week among adult individuals. Initially astounding, it is difficult to think that such accurate counts can be taken for children affected considering such limited data exists for flu-related deaths in the general population, even though flu-related deaths of adults total substantially more. However, flu-related deaths are most common in adults older than 65. This has also been one of the worst flu seasons on record.
“The latest weekly data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the entire continental United States to be experiencing widespread flu at the moment, the first time that’s happened in the 13 years of the current surveillance system,” said Lena H. Sun for the Post.
Hospitals are not required to report flu-related deaths of individuals over 18 years of age because this information is not required to be directly tracked. As a result, it often takes weeks or months to obtain and calculate accurate information from private sectors of the medical community. Also, seasonal influenza is rarely listed as the cause of death on death certificates.
“Many seasonal flu-related deaths occur one or two weeks after a person’s initial infection,” the CDC website said. “Either because the person may develop a secondary bacterial co-infection (such as bacterial pneumonia) or because seasonal influenza can aggravate an existing chronic illness (such as congestive heart failure).”
In California alone, there have been 214 confirmed deaths of individuals under 65 years of age this season as of Feb. 24, according to a report released by the California Department of Public Health. However, judging how flu-related deaths among adults are reported and calculated, we can assume the actual number of deaths is much higher.
“Influenza-associated deaths in the United States ranged from a low of 12,000 (during 2011 to 2012) to a high of 56,000 (during 2012 to 2013),” the CDC website released on December 9, 2016.
9 percent of deaths in the U.S. were caused by flu and pneumonia during the week of February 10, the CDC website reports, which indicates the flu remains at epidemic levels.“There were 40,414 deaths in the U.S. during the third week of 2018 and 4,064 were from pneumonia or influenza, according to the CDC data [released],” Fortune.com reports. “The number for that week is expected to rise as more reports are sent to the agency.”
The National Institutes of Health unveiled a strategic plan this past Wednesday, outlining the goals of the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases to develop a universal influenza vaccine. Among other objectives, the universal flu vaccine must meet four criteria: be at least 75 per cent effective, protect against group I and II influenza A viruses, have durable protection that lasts at year one year and be suitable for all age groups. A deadline for completion was not confirmed.
If successful, this could represent a monumental shift in effectiveness of available flu vaccination treatments. The reason flu vaccines are often touted as ineffective is due to the difficulty of predicting which particular strain will potentially be responsible for an epidemic. Vaccines are typically developed a year before flu season arrives and are typically refined based on strains that surged in past years. An unexpected strain of influenza surged this season, becoming predominantly responsible for the current widespread outbreak.
“While vaccine effectiveness can vary, recent studies by CDC researchers and other experts indicate that flu vaccination reduces the risk of influenza illness by 30 to 60 per cent among the overall population when the vaccine viruses are like the ones spreading in the community,” the CDC said.
The reason for the large swing in effectiveness is due to the unpredictability of the strain to affect individuals. The 2017 to 2018 flu season would be a prime example of the lesser effective end of the spectrum being the case. The remaining duration of the current flu season remains difficult to determine, but previous years indicate it could persist into April.
“Health officials noted a substantial decline in the number of tests positive for Influenza A viruses, which have been dominant this year and less likely to be blocked by the flu vaccine,” NPR said Friday. “Influenza B cases also declined and now appear to be responsible for about half of all illnesses in this surveillance network.”
It is very important to get the flu vaccine, even now with at least six more weeks of flu season ahead of us, particularly due to the recent increase of Influenza B cases, which the vaccine could protect against. The influenza vaccine is especially encouraged for those that work around young children or the elderly as they are the most susceptible to complications from the flu which could result in death, but even young, healthy people remain susceptible to complications from the virus.