United States facing dangerous flu epidemic

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The new year is off to a sick start with unusually high rates of the H3N2 virus, a subtype of influenza A, according to time.com. The virus that is striking the United States this year originated from the 1968 H3N2 flu virus that began in Hong Kong. Today, specifically in the 2017 to 2018 season, this flu has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans and will continue to spread until late May, according to The New York Times
Since the beginning of this year’s flu season Sunday, October 1, 2017, 60,000 flu test samples have tested positive for influenza in both clinical and public laboratories, leaving the flu-related hospitalization rates at 22.7 people per 100,000 US residents, according to time.com. It is the first year that there is widespread activity throughout the entire US. With this type of flu activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers the flu an epidemic. However, in a conference Friday, January 12, CDC Influenza Division Director Dr. Daniel Jernigan explained that the high numbers are not unusual for the United States.

A map showing the activity level of influenza across the US. Courtesy of cdc.gov.

“We’re at the peak of [flu activity] now, and we’ll probably see it go below the baseline in several months. So, yes, [we’re] definitely in an epidemic, but that happens every year in the United States and in the Northern Hemisphere with influenza,” Dr. Jernigan said during the briefing, according to cdc.gov. 
Influenza is categorized into four types: types A, B, C, and D. The type A virus includes subtypes such as the H1N1, H2N2, and H3N2 strains, according to cdc.gov. This year, the US is facing H3N2, the more dangerous strain of influenza that has become increasingly resistant to antiviral vaccines. About 78 percent of flu test samples this year have been H3N2, according to The New York Times.
According to cdc.gov, the flu can kill about 12,000 Americans during a mild season and up to 56,000 Americans during a more severe one. As of Friday, January 26, the flu has taken the lives of 37 children in the United States and thousands of adults, according to the nbcnews.com
H3N2 tends to kill more young children and older adults in comparison to the weaker strain of the flu virus, H1N1, which hit America last year. Children between two and five years old, adults 65 and older, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes, and people with asthma, heart disease, lung disease, blood disorders, kidney disorders, liver disorders, metabolic disorders, or extreme obesity are more at risk for developing flu complications through the H3N2 strain, according to cdc.gov
The 1918 flu pandemic originated in China and killed 50 million people worldwide, making it one of the deadliest occurrences of the flu. The outbreak was the first flu pandemic tied to an H1N1 strain, and it contributed to 37 million lives lost during World War I, according to news.nationalgeographic.com.
In 1968, 50 years later, the first traces of the H3N2 strain appeared during the Hong Kong flu pandemic. Researchers believe that the 1968 pandemic originated from the 1957 Asian flu virus that was subtype H2N2. An antigenic shift, the process by which two or more different strains of a virus combine to form a new subtype, combined the H2N2 and H1N1 strains, creating H3N2 and taking the lives of 1 million people around the world, according to britannica.com. The subtype H3N2 has been prominent every flu season since it initially formed in Hong Kong, making it a component of each year’s flu shot.
A graphic of tips for preventing the flu. Courtesy of fonemed.com.

Scientists alter the flu vaccine annually in an effort to prevent the predicted symptoms and strains of flu from attacking the body. According to time.com, the CDC estimates that the flu shot this year will be effective in preventing only 30% of H3N2 viruses in 2018.
Although it began in October, the flu season will continue for at least 13 more weeks. The CDC recommends that Americans get vaccinated, regardless of the vaccine’s effectiveness, since the shot is likely to also protect against dangerous influenza B strains that spread at the end of the flu season, according to time.com
Sacred Heart Greenwich’s School Nurse Mrs. Mary Walsh discussed the dangers of the H3N2 strain this flu season and offered similar advice.
“I think that part of the problem is that the flu vaccine is only about 30% effective[for H3 viruses] this year,” Mrs. Walsh said. “However, having a flu shot will likely lessen the severity if you do get the flu. The CDC recommendation is that every person 6 months of age or older gets a flu shot as the best measure to prevent getting the flu.”
Mrs. Walsh suggests that students notify the school nurse if they are feeling ill. The flu is highly contagious, so she also recommends that students stay home from school if they are not feeling well, get lots of rest, eat nutritiously, and stay hydrated.
-Sydney Gallop, Staff Writer