The U.S. flu season continues to be particularly severe, by one metric rivaling the 2009 swine flu pandemic, U.S. public health officials said Friday.
"We were hoping to have better news to share today, but unfortunately it looks like this flu season continues to be particularly challenging," Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters on a conference call Friday morning. "We may be on track to break some recent records."
Outpatient visits to hospitals and emergency departments by patients with influenza-like illness have now reached levels not seen since the 2009 season, Schuchat said.
"That's a signal of how very intense this flu season has been," she noted.
The season is now in its 11th week, and Schuchat said flu is so difficult to predict, it's not clear whether cases have yet reached their peak. In the last five years, influenza-like activity in the U.S. has remained elevated anywhere from 11 to 20 weeks, meaning there could still be several more weeks of increased flu activity.
The CDC also reported an additional 10 pediatric deaths related to flu, bringing the reported total this season to 63. The agency has said that count likely underestimates the actual number of flu-related deaths among children, as it depends only on official reports that can take time to reach the CDC.
One bright spot in Friday's update, Schuchat said, is that levels of the severe strain predominantly circulating this season, H3N2, are starting to decline. That's as influenza B strains and, to a lesser extent, influenza A H1N1 strains, are increasing.
That's good news, Schuchat said, as "we actually usually see better vaccine protection against these."
Schuchat emphasized the importance of prevention, including getting a flu vaccine. She also stressed that antiviral drugs, like Tamiflu, can be vital for shortening the duration of flu — noting in areas with high flu activity patients may need to call multiple pharmacies to find one with antivirals in stock.