Editor's note: An updated version of this story is available at http://www.aappublications.org/news/2018/02/23/flu022318.
Flu continues to take a toll this season, as 84 children have died and hospitalization rates have spiked, according to new data from federal health officials.
“I know it’s been a scary flu season and a heartbreaking one for far too many Americans,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Acting Director Anne Schuchat, M.D., said Thursday. “Although we can’t predict how much longer this season will last, we could be looking at several more weeks of intense activity and we will probably continue to hear very sad stories about children and adults critically ill or dying.”
CDC data released today for the week ending Feb. 10 show 22 more children died of flu and one previous death was reclassified, bringing total pediatric deaths to 84. Dr. Schuchat previously said about three-quarters of children who died had not been vaccinated. In regular seasons, pediatric deaths have ranged from 37 to 171 and reached 358 during the 2009 pandemic.
Hospitalization rates have jumped to 67.9 per 100,000 population, up from 59.9, which had been the highest since tracking began in 2010.
Children 4 years and younger are being hospitalized for influenza-like illness at a rate of 47.1 per 100,000 population, the third highest of any age group. The rate for children ages 5-17 is 12.3 per 100,000 population.
Among the hospitalized children for whom there was information about underlying conditions, 48.8% had at least one, most commonly asthma, neurologic disorder or obesity.
Visits to outpatient clinics or emergency departments for flu among all ages declined slightly in the most recent week from 7.7% of visits to 7.5%.
The new figures come on the heels of the CDC’s interim findings that flu vaccine is 36% effective this year across all strains. Effectiveness was greatest for children 6 months through 8 years (59%) and lowest for adolescents ages 9-17 (5%).
Effectiveness for influenza A (H3N2), which has been predominant this season, is 25%. Again, it is highest for children 6 months through 8 years (51%) and lowest for adolescents ages 9-17 (-8%).
Vaccine effectiveness is higher for other strains of the virus — 67% against influenza A (H1N1)pdm09 and 42% against influenza B, according to the CDC.
“This season’s vaccine performed overall about as we expected, but we realize there is room for improvement,” Dr. Schuchat said. “We will continue to monitor effectiveness and collectively work to improve flu vaccines.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II encouraged vaccination and likened it to people buckling seat belts when riding in a car.
“Going to get a flu shot and getting shots for your young children is the same kind of common sense measure,” he said. “It helps protect you, your family and your community.”
People who are very old, very young, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions are at highest risk of complications. Signs of severe flu include persistent high fever, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, significant fatigue and feeling better followed by feeling much worse. Clinicians who suspect flu in these patients should begin antiviral treatment immediately.