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Flu hits children and elderly in US

22nd January 2013

This season's influenza outbreak in the United States has resulted in more child deaths than in previous years, and resulted in more elderly people being hospitalised.

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While the rate of infection in some areas appears to have peaked, death rates and hospitalisation rates are still on the rise.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all but two states have reported widespread cases, with cases on the rise in Hawaii, and decreasing in Tennessee.

Cases of influenza in California and Mississippi both escalated from regional to widespread activity.

There was a slight decline in the proportion of outpatient visits triggered by a flu-like illness last week, with 4.6% of cases apparently linked to influenza, compared with 4.8% of cases in the previous week.

Usually, only 2.2% of outpatient visits are made for influenza-like illnesses.

According to CDC director Thomas Frieden, this year's flu season is worse-than-average, and has hit the elderly particularly hard.

Last week, 8.3% of deaths nationwide were attributed to influenza and pneumonia, compared with 7.3%. The threshold for an illness to be considered epidemic is 7.2%.

A total of 29 children have died of the flu and related complications since the season began, and CDC received nine new reports of flu-related paediatric deaths last week.

Last year, 34 children died of influenza, compared with 282 in 2009-2010, the year of the H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic.

Around half of hospital admissions for influenza were among older people, and the majority of those were caused by H3N2 subtype influenza A viruses.

The H3N2 subtype has historically been associated with higher mortality and hospitalisation rates, CDC said in a weekly update.

Frieden said in a conference call with reporters that CDC expected a further rise in hospitalisations and death from flu next week, as complications developed from last week's infections.

He said the current flu vaccine was a good match for the strains of the virus currently circulating, but that it was currently still in short supply.

Frieden said that people should continue to seek vaccination, particularly in the Western part of the country.

He said a total of 145 million vaccine doses would be needed this season, and that people could use Flu.gov to search for local availibility.

He said antivirals like oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza) were a valuable second-line of defence against the epidemic.

If taken in the first 48 hours, they can reduce the length of the illness and make serious complications like pneumonia less likely.

Frieden said that high-risk groups like the elderly, children, people with chronic diseases and pregnant women should certainly be given them.

He said that people in those groups should be prescribed antivirals even if their flu test came up negative.


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