Early Flu Season Could Turn Into A Severe One As Illness Spreads

Flu season has started early this year, and it's hit hard. The flu has gotten so bad in Boston, for example, that the mayor declared a public health emergency this week. Audie Cornish speaks with Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about the scope of this year's outbreak and what people can do to avoid getting infected.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are putting some numbers behind something many of us have noticed: A lot of people are sick right now. Apparently, the flu season has started early. On a CDC map of the U.S., which tracks flu outbreaks, almost every state is colored brown, meaning flu there is widespread.

Dr. Thomas Frieden is the director of the CDC, and he join us now. And, Dr. Frieden, to begin, that CDC surveillance map, what does that map normally look like this time of year?

DR. THOMAS FRIEDEN: It wouldn't be as widely distributed. We wouldn't see flu everywhere this early. This is an early flu season. Usually, flu peaks in January or February. We don't know when the peak will be, but it looks like it's certainly started sooner, and the peak may go higher this year than most years.

CORNISH: Which states are hardest hit?

FRIEDEN: The South and Southeast have been hit first. And it's often the case that disease spreads across the country as it spreads across the globe. But it really is quite variable. Even within a state you can see very different levels of illness in different communities.

CORNISH: Do you have any sense yet of why it would start so early?

FRIEDEN: We really don't know what does result in flu being earlier or later in the season. The fact that it's an H3 year, a strain of the virus that hasn't been around in a while, is sometimes associated with earlier years. So that would be the leading hypothesis.

CORNISH: Now, what's the scope of this flu outbreak? Is it actually that it's more severe, the kind of flu you might catch than it's been in the past? Or is it just because it's infecting so many people?

FRIEDEN: We won't know until later in the season just how severe this year is. It is shaping up to be a moderate to severe year. That means that people who are very young or very old may be at higher risk of severe illness or hospitalization or even death from flu.

CORNISH: And is flu the only outbreak right now? It seems like everyone we know is sick with one thing or another.

FRIEDEN: Well, in the winter months we often do see an increase in various types of virus. We're also seeing an early season with a virus that causes diarrhea called norovirus. And like the flu, the norovirus evolves and changes from year to year. And this year, we're seeing a new type of norovirus. We don't yet know whether it will be more severe, but it certainly happened sooner this year than it often does.

CORNISH: Now, people hearing this story might be getting worried. And is it too late for them to go out and get a flu shot?

FRIEDEN: It's not too late to get a flu shot, although it takes about two weeks for immunity to kick in. If you get a flu shot today or soon - and flu hasn't hit your community or completely gone through your community yet - you will have some protection.

If you have been vaccinated, it doesn't mean you have no chance of getting the flu. So even if you've been vaccinated, and especially if you haven't been vaccinated, if you get symptoms of the flu and you're either severely ill or you have an underlying condition, like diabetes or are taking steroids for asthma, by all means, see your doctor promptly because treatment can reduce the severity of your illness.

CORNISH: Now, the CDC surveillance map, it certainly gives a lot of information. Also, google.org has its own flu trends map, which claims to be a good predictor of flu outbreaks, and they track it by essentially flu-related search terms that people type in. Is this helpful to people such as yourself?

FRIEDEN: It's great to have more sources of information on what people are concerned about and how it differs in different parts of the country. It doesn't substitute for needing to get the real data on what's happening, meaning for patients to see doctors, doctors to get laboratory tests, and laboratory tests to be analyzed so that we can know what is the bacteria or virus causing the illness, which strain, is it related to an outbreak?

So it's a great tool. It can complement, but it doesn't replace some of the traditional tools that we need to use.

CORNISH: Dr. Thomas Frieden is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Frieden, thank you for speaking with us.

FRIEDEN: Thank you very much.

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