ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The flu season is bad this year. That's the message today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here with details. Hey, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Health officials did warn us about this. So just how bad is it?
STEIN: It's pretty bad out there, Ari. You know, the flu season has started early. And that's never a good sign. And it really took off early in the south and spread quickly around the country. And the latest data released today from the CDC shows that it's really pretty much everywhere. The flu's pretty much everywhere in the country right now. And it's really intense in dozens of states. And it's reached epidemic levels. So the proportion of people who are rushing to their doctors to get treated for the flu is as high as it ever gets in a really bad flu season already. And the percentage of people who are in there - up in the hospital to get treated for the flu, it doubled in the last week alone.
STEIN: So, you know, we're hearing reports about ERs being overrun in California, pharmacists - pharmacies running out of antiviral drugs. And at least 20 kids have already died from the flu this year.
SHAPIRO: Wow. What makes a bad flu season more intense than a regular one?
STEIN: Yeah. So starting early, that's one factor. But a big factor this year is the particular strain of flu that's dominating. It's called the H3N2 strain. And it's notoriously nasty. It's the kind of bug that makes more people sick. And when they get sick, they get sicker. And it's especially dangerous for the people who are the most vulnerable to the flu, like kids and older people.
SHAPIRO: Does this just mean that most people didn't get the flu vaccine?
STEIN: No. The proportion of people who are getting - who've gotten vaccinated so far this year is pretty much on track for what it is most years. The problem, again, is this H3N2 strain of the flu. It tends to mutate when the vaccine is being made. And that's exactly what happened this year.
STEIN: So the vaccine doesn't work as well. And in Australia, which has its flu season right before ours, it looks like it may have only been about 10 percent effective against this strain.
SHAPIRO: Only 10 percent effective?
STEIN: Yeah, only 10 percent. Now, officials in this country are saying look; we think it's going to work better in this country, but they're saying at best it may be around 30 percent effective. So that's leaving a lot of people pretty vulnerable.
SHAPIRO: Suddenly, the suit of armor I thought I was wearing seems a lot less secure.
STEIN: Yeah. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: So is there any point in getting a vaccine in that case?
STEIN: Yes, definitely. There's - people should definitely still get vaccinated. And there are lots of reasons for that. One is, you know, any protection is better than none. And if you get vaccinated - even if you get sick, you might not get as sick as you would've gotten if you hadn't gotten vaccinated. Another reason is that if other strains of the virus start to dominate, the vaccine works better against them. So you'll be protected against those other strains if they start to become more common. And although the season appears to be peaking right now, it could go on for weeks and weeks and weeks. So there's plenty of time for the vaccine to protect you.
SHAPIRO: This all sounds very dire - people going to the hospital, people dying. How worried should most Americans be?
STEIN: Well, so, you know, the thing about the flu is that it's notoriously unpredictable. You know, it could go either way. It could be that, you know, the season is peaking now and it could peter out really quickly. And it started earlier. And it could end early. And it could end up in the end just being an average year. But if it goes on for weeks and weeks and weeks, it could end up being the really nasty flu season year that people have been worrying about for a while.
SHAPIRO: You said that the flu can mutate as they're developing the vaccine. Is there a more updated vaccine? Should those of us who got a shot months ago get a new one?
STEIN: No. Unfortunately, there isn't. There's a lot of research going on to try to develop better vaccines. That's a really intense area of research. And a lot of people are calling for more money to do just that because we need to have a better vaccine they can rely on year after year. But at the moment, unfortunately, that's just not available.
SHAPIRO: Otherwise, just wash your hands a lot, stay home if you're sick, cover your mouth if you cough, all the regular advice.
STEIN: That's right. And that makes a big difference, really.
SHAPIRO: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks a lot.
STEIN: Oh, sure. Thanks, Ari.
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