This flu season isn't yet as severe as last year's, though activity is starting to pick up, CDC says

A man receives a flu shot at a free clinic hosted by  VNA Home Health Hospice.
Derek Davis | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images
A man receives a flu shot at a free clinic hosted by VNA Home Health Hospice.

This flu season so far hasn't been as severe as last year, though activity is starting to pick up, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

Fewer people have sought outpatient care or have been hospitalized for flu-like illnesses this season, the CDC said in a report summarizing flu activity from Sept. 30 to Feb. 2. Fewer deaths have been attributed to pneumonia and the flu this season compared with recent years, the CDC said.

As of Feb. 2, 28 children have died from the flu, according to the CDC, compared with 63 at the same time last year. However, it's still too early to say just how severe this season will end up, said Dr. Joshua Doyle, a disease detective with the CDC's flu division.

Last season, the CDC estimates 80,000 people died of flu and its complications, the highest death toll in at least four decades. While this year isn't yet quite as bad, activity is increasing and flu is now widespread, Doyle said. It's too early to say when the flu will peak, he said, and there may be several weeks left in the season.

The agency encourages people to get a flu shot if they haven't already. Early estimates indicate this year's vaccine is 47 percent effective, the CDC said Thursday. That's better than the average of 41 percent, according to a review of historical data.

"[Someone] may not have seen flu yet in their community, but they may well see flu this season," said Dr. Brendan Flannery, an epidemiologist in the CDC's flu division. "So the low severity means that there has been less flu, it's not as widespread as it was last year at this time, but they may still see flu and that's another reason to get vaccinated if they haven't."

H1N1 viruses have been the most commonly reported viruses so far. These tend to be less severe than H3N2 viruses. However, H3N2 is now spreading in the Southeast, the CDC said.

It's not uncommon to see different viruses circulating in different parts of the country, Doyle said. The 2011-2012 season was the last time health officials saw a mix between H1N1 and H3N2, he said.

"Overall, the message we're saying is flu activity is still widespread. There's still a lot of flu across the country," Doyle said. "But the vaccine is working as we would expect it to, so it's doing its job. So there's still time for people to get vaccinated if they haven't already."

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