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Severe cases in flu epidemic continue to rise, health officials say

Ariel Hart, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

And it is only now, after people have spent weeks spreading the flu and lying sick in hospitals, that the sickest are dying, and the extent of this flu's deadliness is becoming clear.

Ten more patients below age 18 were confirmed dead from the flu last week, bringing the national total of child flu deaths to 63.

"I think they were anticipating we were going to reach a plateau and start to decline," said Ted Ross, the director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology at the University of Georgia, who works on flu. "Based upon the trend, that should have happened in mid-January. It's basically breaking this week the rates we saw in the 2009 pandemic. ... This is obviously troubling."

"I wish that there were better news this week," Schuchat said, "but almost everything we're looking at is bad news."

The epidemic is on track to match the most widespread flu outbreak in recent memory, when in 2014-2015 the flu infected 34 million Americans.

Scientists have known something bad was coming, and those working on advances in flu medicine see it as a call to action.

"In the scientific community we have been warned about this for several months," said Ross, the UGA professor, citing reports from the fall about the strain's beginnings in the Southern Hemisphere. "Even though we were talking about it and medical professionals were getting ready, there was really nothing more we could do to prepare for it.

"We had already made the vaccine for this flu season. There was no way to go back and make it again."

Ross is working on what he hopes will be a universal flu vaccine. This year's predominant flu strain, H3N2, is very good at quickly shape-shifting to elude vaccines and immune systems, so this year's flu vaccine, while helpful, is not as effective as those from previous years. Experts still encourage people to get a flu shot, as it may lessen the effect even for those in whom it doesn't prevent the sickness entirely.

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Ross' vaccine is 90 percent to 95 percent effective in animal trials, he said, compared with about 30 percent for this year's human flu vaccine. But it still must go through human trials to be proved effective and safe, and it is years away from fruition.

Schuchat offered a warning to anyone who gets the flu, then feels better, then suddenly starts to feel much worse. In such cases, immediate medical attention is critical because it could be a sign of a secondary infection that preys on the already-weakened patient's body.

And it's not too late to see benefit from a flu shot.

(Staff writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this report.)

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