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What you need to know about the worst flu season in nearly a decade

This year's brutal flu season is not easing its grip yet: hospitalizations are up, doctors visits have reached 2009 levels and at least 63 children have died. Judy Woodruff asks Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, why it’s so bad, who is most vulnerable and what you should do even if you’re healthy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Flu season is not easing its grip on much of the United States, and the outbreak is reaching levels not seen in nearly a decade.

    Hospitalizations for it are higher than normal, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported today that roughly one in 13 visits to the doctor last week were for flu-like symptoms. It has also claimed the lives of at least 10 more children this week, putting that number at 63 for the season.

    Tens of thousands of deaths are often associated with the flu annually.

    Dr. Anne Schuchat is the acting director of the CDC, and she joins me now.

    Dr. Schuchat, welcome back to the program.

    So, how widespread is the flu right now in this country?

  • Dr. Anne Schuchat:

    This is a very difficult flu season. And this past week, we got more bad news. The doctor visits for flu are as high this week as we have seen during the peak of the 2009 pandemic.

    We're not having a pandemic right now, but we have a very, very difficult flu season.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why is it so bad this year?

  • Dr. Anne Schuchat:

    Well, there are a couple reasons that we know of, and there are probably some more reasons that we need to learn about.

    One thing is it's an H3N2 influenza season. That's the strain that's dominating. There are a couple other strains circulating. H3N2 seasons tend to be more severe.

    The other thing is that influenza vaccine doesn't work as well against H3N2 strains, so that's probably a second factor. And the third factor is that the vaccine is probably working even less well than usual against the H3N2.

    We had an early start to the season, and it's continuing full force right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Are there particular parts of our population that are more vulnerable than others?

  • Dr. Anne Schuchat:

    Anyone can get the flu, and it can be serious.

    But the people who have a harder time with flu are the very old, the very young, pregnant women, and people with heart disease, lung disease, and other medical conditions that can make it harder for them to take on a lung infection.

    We recommend that those groups in particular, if they present with flu symptoms, they can benefit from antiviral medicines that may convert a relatively mild illness — that may prevent a milder illness from becoming a hospitalization or worse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there enough, Dr. Schuchat? Is there enough vaccine available this year to prevent the flu or at least prevent it from being more severe? Is there enough of the drug Tamiflu, which I know is prescribed for many people?

  • Dr. Anne Schuchat:

    More than 152 million doses of influenza vaccine have been distributed. And the coverage is about — overall about what we saw last year in terms of how many people have gotten vaccinated by this time in the year.

    It's not too late to be vaccinated, for those who haven't already gotten vaccinated. There may be some benefit to still getting the vaccine. We're seeing more requests or prescriptions for Tamiflu or the other antivirals against influenza than we have seen in past years. There's a lot of demand for that because of the intense season.

    It may be hard to find locally, so we expect that people may need to call around to the pharmacies. But the past couple weeks,we have been working closely with the manufacturers, the pharmacy chains, the insurers, the distributors to try smooth out that supply, to take care of those spot shortages.

    We do think that prompt treatment with antiviral medicines can be very important in people who present with severe symptoms or people who are at risk for complications.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I have to ask you, what is your advice for people who have not had the flu and for people who have it?

  • Dr. Anne Schuchat:

    Well, if you are feeling well, keep washing your hands, cover your cough or sneeze. And if you do get sick, please stay home from work or school, so that you don't spread the flu. What's a mild illness for you could be something severe for one of your co-workers or your classmates.

    If you have the flu and you are pregnant or elderly or have heart or lung disease, we hope that you're seeking medical care, because prompt treatment with antivirals can be lifesaving.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC, we thank you.

  • Dr. Anne Schuchat:

    Thank you, Judy.

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