A flu epidemic gripping the United States is more severe than usual, striking the elderly especially hard, health authorities said as they also announced 29 child victims.

With the nation only about half-way through the season, complications are likely to worsen for those who caught the flu, Tom Frieden, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said yesterday.

“We expect to see both the number and rates of hospitalisation and deaths to rise further,” Frieden told reporters.

Influenza rates

The CDC said 30 States and New York City are reporting high influenza rates from 24 States last week. And more than 5,000 people have required hospitalisation to treat their flu symptoms. New York has declared a state of emergency over the crisis.

Widespread geographic flu activity was also reported in 48 States for the week ending January 12 from 47 States in the previous week. Nationwide, influenza rates dropped slightly to 4.6 per cent from 4.8 per cent in the previous week.

Flu-related deaths

There is no national reporting system for flu-related deaths among adults, but the CDC said that 8.3 per cent of deaths reported through the 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System were due to pneumonia and influenza.

That exceeds the epidemic threshold of 7.2 per cent. The rate of flu and pneumonia-linked deaths in the week before was 7.3 per cent.

Nine children died last week alone, bringing the total to 29 since the season began in early December. The flu kills an average of about a hundred children in the United States each year. The toll was 34 in 2011-2012.

“It’s shaping up to be a worse than average season and a bad season particularly for the elderly,” Frieden said, stressing that there was still time to get vaccinated and that early treatment was “critically important’’.

Spread of flu epidemic

He predicted that hospitalisations and deaths would continue to rise as the flu epidemic spreads further.

The severity of the symptoms this year may be explained by the season experiencing a dominant strain of influenza A (H3N2), historically blamed for more serious cases of the virus.

So far, about half of confirmed flu cases concern people aged 65 and older, with a high hospitalisation rate of 82 per 100,000.

People, older than 65, usually account for about 90 per cent of the 36,000 annual flu deaths around the country.

(This article was published on January 19, 2013)
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