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What you need to know about this season’s brutal flu

This year's flu outbreak is the most widespread the Centers for Disease Control has ever seen. Doctor visits are climbing and pediatric deaths from the illness are up as well. What makes it so severe? Dr. Amber Robins of Georgetown University joins John Yang to discuss the flu vaccine and other tips for prevention.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the flu season in the United States may be reaching a peak, and, so far, it looks like a more severe season than others in recent memory.

    John Yang gets an update on why and what you need to know.

  • John Yang:

    This flu season started earlier than in the past, and the Centers for Disease Control says it is the most widespread outbreak it has ever seen.

    Officials say doctor's visits are climbing, and pediatric deaths from the flu are up as well, at least 20 so far.

    The CDC says the flu leads to the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.

    To bring us the latest on the current flu season, we're joined by Dr. Amber Robins. She's a family medicine physician at Georgetown University and the health and media fellow here at the NewsHour.

    Dr. Robins, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Thank you for having me.

  • John Yang:

    Why is this season so bad?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    This season is bad because, this year, we're seeing more people with influenza A.

    Now, in the past, we have seen a season with influenza A means that we have more cases of the flu, we have more hospitalizations and ultimately more deaths because of the flu. And so that is a concern this year, as influenza A is the predominant flu strand.

  • John Yang:

    And what makes influenza A so problematic?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Right. It changes so quickly.

    So, even though we have the vaccine that's made several months before the flu season actually begins here in the U.S., the virus itself changes, that it's not an exact match to the actual vaccine. So, that is a point of concern.

    But it is important to know that, even though that may be the case, if you get a flu vaccine, you are less likely to have hospitalizations. And then, the flu itself, if you do get it after getting the vaccine, your symptoms are less severe.

  • John Yang:

    And how effective is this vaccine this year?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Right. It's around 32 percent. That's what experts think for this year, which is a little less than it has been in previous years. But, again, it's better to get it than not get it. It's better to be covered than not.

  • John Yang:

    And could this season get even worse?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    It could.

    The question is, though, where are we in the flu season? So, like you were saying before, we know that the flu season started a little bit earlier than it usually does. But the question is, are we at the peak of this season, or is this a trend that is going upward?

    So those questions, we still don't know the answers to, until the flu season is over.

  • John Yang:

    OK, a little practical advice for people now.

    When should someone go to the doctor? A lot of people try to tough it out. I see them in the aisles of the drugstores.

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Oh, yes.

  • John Yang:

    When should they decide to go to the doctor?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Whenever you feel sick, you should either think about going to the doctor or just call if you have any questions.

    Symptoms of the flu are fevers, chills, night sweat, cough, feeling really horrible. And those are also symptoms of a cold, so it's really hard to decipher which one is which. And that's our job, to help you and be able to treat if we think that it is the flu.

  • John Yang:

    Is it too late for people to get a flu shot?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    No, not too late at all. You can go to your clinic or you can go to the local pharmacy and still get a flu vaccine now.

    And the people who should get it, of course, it's people who are the age of six months and above, but then also those who are pregnant, those who may have some long-term chronic diseases, like heart disease. We also know, for influenza A, those who are older and younger are the ones who are at more risk of having complications from it.

    So those are the people that we're saying, you definitely, definitely need to get your flu vaccine.

  • John Yang:

    Two things I hear a lot of people say- I never get the flu.

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Oh, yes.

  • John Yang:

    So, I'm not going to get a shot. Or, if I get a shot, I'm afraid I'm going to get the flu.

    What do you say to those folks?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Right.

    Well, for the first one that you — people who say that they have never gotten the flu, I hear so many patients say that they wish they would have gotten the vaccine once they get the flu. So, I would say, you know, even with your thoughts of not getting the flu, it's good to have some protection than no protection.

    And with the flu being something that we're giving you in the flu vaccine, that's not necessarily true. In the vaccine itself, it's usually an inactivated flu virus, meaning that it's not a living virus. And what that does is, it helps your system be aware of the flu and what it looks like, so that when you do come in contact with an active virus, your body knows what to do, and those fighter cells can go ahead and fight that flu.

  • John Yang:

    We have heard a lot of talk about the shortage of antivirals like Tamiflu. Is there — what's that about?

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Right.

    So, there are some places where it's hard to get those antivirals. And, usually, those places are the places that have a lot of flu cases. But, overall, in the United States, there is not a shortage. It's just depending on where you're trying to get the medication.

    So, if you're in one of those places where you know that there are a lot of people who have the flu, just calling your pharmacy and seeing if they have the medication would be helpful. And, again, that medication is good to have when you're in the first two days of the virus, because it helps shorten duration of having the flu, and also it decreases the severity of the symptoms.

  • John Yang:

    Very good.

    Dr. Amber Robins, thanks for the house call.

  • Dr. Amber Robins:

    Thank you.

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