CDC's influenza app should be more reliable

The flu season is upon us, and oh what a season it is turning out to be. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data that shows the U.S. is having an early flu season with most of the country experiencing high levels of influenza-like illness. Forty-seven states reported widespread geographic influenza activity for the week between Dec. 30, 2012 and Jan. 5, 2013, an increase from 41 states in the previous week.

In addition, the proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza based on the 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System now is slightly above the epidemic threshold for the first time this season. Excluding the 2009 pandemic, the last time a flu season was this early and so severe was during the 2003-04 season, when there were more than 40,000 associated deaths.

While this year's predominant flu is very similar to a type that caused the deadly 2003-04 season, unlike the vaccine that was available 10 years ago, this year's flu vaccine closely matches the strains in circulation. Unfortunately, with the early start and severity of the current flu season, ERs and doctor's offices around the country are struggling to keep pace with the surge in patients.

One of the free resources available to clinicians and other health care professionals is the CDC influenza app for iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, which provides vaccination recommendations endorsed by CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Available for download on the iTunes App Store, caregivers can use it to obtain information on the diagnosis and treatment of influenza, including antiviral treatment recommendations by CDC and ACIP, and information on laboratory testing for influenza.

An obvious drawback is that the CDC's influenza app is not available on Android, but will be added in a future update. Version 1.1, the latest version of the CDC Influenza app, was updated to iTunes on Dec. 11, 2012. According to a limited number of customer ratings for all versions, the app has earned a three-star rating out of five, overall. Not bad, but, in my opinion, it needs to be better.

While one customer review from a public health official posted on iTunes called the app "very nicely written" and recommended it as "helpful," another reviewer commented that the information is three weeks old and complained that graph couldn't be enlarged enough for proper legibility. The latter reviewer gave the app two stars for stability and ease of use, adding that the CDC needs to make the app more current than the desktop version for real time out-of-office viewing.

Still another reviewer called the CDC's influenza app a "very good resource for general information," but said that it contained information "several weeks out of date for flu activity." The online posting called this a "shame because that is what a busy doc would most like."

Busy doctors need up-to-date tools to treat their patients, especially in situations like this. It's unfortunate that one supposedly tailor made for our current predicament isn't as reliable as it probably should be. Hopefully, CDC will make sure the bugs are worked out by next year's flu season. - Greg (@Slabodkin)