CDC: Flu season reaches epidemic level

The severity of the influenza season in the United States has escalated into an epidemic, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

During the week ending Dec. 20, 6.8 percent of all deaths reported in 122 U.S. cities were due to influenza and pneumonia, meeting the CDC-designated threshold for being categorized as an epidemic. So far this season, the flu has killed 15 children and has been responsible for 2,643 hospitalizations between Oct. 1 and Dec. 20, according to the CDC data.

However, the flu reaching epidemic levels isn't entirely uncommon, CDC officials told the Washington Post, saying that the current numbers reflect a "typical pattern for the flu season." In 2009, the flu reached pandemic levels, ultimately claiming the lives of 348 children, according to the Post.

But the most recent flu data follows on the heels of the CDC's warning early in December that this year's flu season was shaping up to be particularly severe due to the prevalence of the influenza A H3N2 strain, which is associated with a higher rate of hospitalizations and deaths. That particular strain is also less likely to be affected by the flu vaccine, diminishing the effectiveness of inoculation. Still, the CDC urged people at high risk to get vaccinated.

"While the vaccine's ability to protect against drifted H3N2 viruses this season may be reduced, we are still strongly recommending vaccination," Joseph Bresee, M.D., Chief of the Influenza Epidemiology and Prevention Branch at CDC, said in a statement. "Vaccination has been found to provide some protection against drifted viruses in past seasons. Also, vaccination will offer protection against other flu viruses that may become more common later in the season."

Vaccination is particularly important for those in the healthcare industry, yet a September report found that while vaccination rates among nurses has improved in the last two years, rates are still too low among certain types of healthcare workers, FierceHealthcare previously reported. In an effort to increase vaccination among healthcare staff, last year the state of New York mandated that hospital, nursing home and home care agency workers who refuse to get the flu shot this season wear a mask to help prevent the spread of the disease.

To learn more:
- check out the CDC's data
- read the CDC statement
- read the Washington Post article