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Flu Roars into 2020 with Unusual Strain, High Number of Childhood Deaths

8 Jan, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

2020 isn’t all that is underway. The flu season got off to an early start in 2019, according to medical researchers, and is showing no signs of a slowdown.

CNN notes that so far this flu season, at least 2,900 people in the US are estimated to have died of the flu, according to data released Friday by the CDC. That's 800 more deaths than estimated the previous week.

Flu cases and hospitalizations because of the flu have also risen sharply since the season began in October. CDC estimates there have been at least 6.4 million flu illnesses and 55,000 hospitalizations.

If, given the earlier start of this flu season, you follow the historical curve in the timeline of the virus, it would have predicted a December peak, as opposed to previous years when it started and peaked later.

But the flu doesn’t read the news and it doesn’t play follow-the-leader. As of the new year, it was continuing to trend upward, with no sign of even reaching a plateau. And there’s every indication that when it does peak, it will do so at a far higher level than in years past, and be slower to decline as well.

"The main reason is how high flu activity already is,"Dave Osthus, a statistician and flu forecaster at Los Alamos National Laboratory told The Associated Press. "The 2019/20 season is already worse than three of the past 20 flu seasons ever were, and the worst part of the flu season — historically late December through early March — hasn't happened yet."

The CDC noted that visits to healthcare providers to discuss flu and flu-like symptoms had been registering at or above the national baseline.

And this year, the predominant strain of the flu has been the type B virus; in fact, according to information on ARS Technica, around 60 to 70 percent of the flu viruses analyzed from patients this flu season have been type B viruses. (If you want to get really specific, ARS notes, “Of those, about 97 percent tested were in the B/Victoria lineage. Over the last few weeks, the proportion of B/Victoria strains among the flu-positive cases has been increasing. It's unclear why B/Victoria is surging or what that surge means for the rest of the flu season.) CDC spokesperson Scott Pauley told ARS over e-mail that flu is difficult to predict and that it's simply "too early to make any kind of assessment about the potential severity of the season."

Children, in particular, seem to be particularly vulnerable to the B strain, with 27 children having died by the end of 2019. That is the highest number of childhood flu deaths since the CDC started keeping track.

The good news is that this strain of the flu is one of those covered by the current vaccine.

In a poll cited in an article in Newsweek56 percent of people noted they had gotten a flu shot in preparation for the coming season. Another 15 percent had not gotten it yet, 25 percent planned not to do so, and the rest couldn’t make up their minds.

Largely, the decision of whether to vaccinate children is driven by requirements set by schools or other groups - as well as by the degree to which parents are informed about the problems that can be caused by unvaccinated children. Unfortunately, say doctors, some parents hear schools say a flu vaccine is not required and believe it is not necessary. In fact, pediatriciants note, nothing could be further from the truth.

And with plenty of tournaments (particularly those held in indoor venues) still on the books for this flu season (whenever it may end), event owners have a right to be concerned. In addition to being worried about athletes becoming ill and affecting the attendance of the event, there is the potential for the virus to be transmitted among crowds. But since it’s unrealistic to mandate flu shots for everyone entering an arena, many post signage and put information on their websites regarding routine precautions such as hand washing or sanitizing, covering a cough and not sharing items like water bottles.

Within the last several years, organizers have stepped up their defensive game to keep players safe. In Rochester, youth hockey coach Joel Johnson told WHAM, the local ABC affiliate, that he had begun getting players to take extra precautions.

"It's just a general concern and trying to take the necessary precautions to keep your kids safe," Atkinson said. "Just commonsense things - washing your hands, things like that, especially with sharing a locker room."

And with events like March Madness around the corner, it’s obvious there will be plenty of repeats of last year’s concerns affecting teams (as well as spectators).

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