This season’s flu is shaping up to be particularly hard on children, with an additional 14 kids dying this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
So far this flu season, 92 children have died, according to CDC estimates released Friday.
“Reports of influenza-like illness have increased in the last few weeks” and are “high” among children, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said during a Friday news briefing.
Those rates, she added, are comparable to the notoriously severe 2017-2018 flu season, when 187 children died from influenza.
While hospitalization rates overall are similar to past seasons, children are particularly vulnerable to the virus and its complications.
During recent flu seasons, deaths among children have ranged from 37 to 187.
This year’s flu shot isn’t an exact match for the strain that’s been circulating most widely, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get it, health experts said.
“The influenza vaccine protects against various strains, three or four, depending on which vaccine you receive,” said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Early 2019 to 2020 flu activity primarily was driven by influenza B/Victoria viruses, for which the vaccine is not a great match. Now, that flu activity is changing, “an increase in A/H1N1,” Schaffner said.
“It looks like we’re having a second wave,” he added. “The vaccine is exactly on target against this strain.”
In general, influenza B is more common in children, while influenza A, also called H1N1, is more commonly seen in older adults, according to Dr. Jessica Grayson, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
So far, 14,000 people have died and 250,000 people have been hospitalized during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to preliminary estimates from the CDC.
“The flu season began early this year and took off aggressively,” added Schaffner. “It began prominently in the southeastern states but quickly spread. So far, there is no sign that the momentum of the annual epidemic is slowing.”
The majority of states, as well as New York City and Puerto Rico, are seeing high flu activity.
In total, the CDC estimates that 26 million people have gotten the flu so far this season.
Typical flu symptoms include fever, sore throat, aches, chills and sweats and fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While the flu might seem like a relatively minor disease because it’s so common, complications from the flu, which can include pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma flare-ups and heart problems, can be deadly.
People with weakened immune systems, adults older than age 65 and babies are all at a higher risk of contracting the flu
If you experience flu symptoms, Grayson recommends staying home from work and other public places to avoid transmitting the disease to others. Wash your hands often and avoid others who are ill.
“Before going to your doctor’s office, call,” Grayson said. “They may have a different waiting room for those who are sick.”
How to protect yourself — and your child
Getting vaccinated against the flu is the best way to protect against the disease, according to experts.
Receiving the vaccine earlier in the season is preferable, because the vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in, but even partial protection against the flu can ward off the worst symptoms and make the duration of the disease less severe.
“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” Grayson stressed. “We still have a lot of flu season left.”
Guidelines for children are slightly different than for adults, according to the CDC. The agency is now recommending that some children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years old get two doses of the vaccine, spaced at least four weeks apart. The child’s doctor or health care provider should determine whether he or she needs a second dose for the best possible protection against the flu.
Despite those recommendations, however, many Americans mistakenly believe that the flu vaccine doesn’t work or has side effects. Apart from soreness at the needle’s injection site, there are no notable side effects linked to the flu vaccine.
Partly because of these misconceptions, only half of Americans reported that they planned to get the flu vaccine this year, according to a survey conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases this summer.
In addition to the flu vaccine, there are four Food and Drug Administration-approved antiviral drugs that the CDC recommends for treating the flu.