On Tuesday, state health officials issued a warning - this year’s flu season is bad, and it will get worse.
At least 17 North Carolinians have died from the flu this winter. Nine of those deaths came last week.
When flu season hits the U.S., it always seems to hit our region first, says Doctor Zack Moore, an epidemiologist with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. "There’s been widespread flu activity not just in North Carolina but in all of our neighboring states and now really across the country."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now reports the flu has reached epidemic levels in North Carolina and 42 other states. This year the most active strain of the virus is known as H3N2. And it’s a particularly nasty bug, says Megan Davies, North Carolina’s chief epidemiologist. "The H3N2 type of influenza tends to cause more severe illness in the elderly which is consistent with what we’ve seen this year." It is also potentially more dangerous for children, pregnant women, those who suffer asthma and those with compromised immune systems.
There’s another reason this flu season is expected to be a bad one. The flu vaccine itself.
In order to produce and distribute enough doses each year, medical experts predict which flu viruses are most likely to surface. This year they got it partially wrong. Which means, says Davies, "The vaccine probably provides less protection against viruses that are not well matched."
And that leads to more people getting sick and more flu-related deaths. Last year, when the vaccine was a good match, about 30 percent of people who died from the flu had been vaccinated. This year, says Zack Moore, that number has jumped to 45 percent.
But the vaccine does offer protection for three or four other strains of flu in circulation.