The U.S. is in the midst of a particularly severe flu season, dominated by the H1N1 strain — popularly called “swine flu” — responsible for the 2009 pandemic that killed 284,000 people worldwide. According to federal health officials, 35 states are now experiencing “widespread influenza activity.” And although the flu typically has the biggest impact on children and seniors, officials are noticing a different pattern this year.
So far this season, about 61 percent of people who landed in the hospital with the flu have been adults in between the ages of 18 and 65. That’s a sharp contrast to the trend in previous years, when senior citizens over the age of 65 have made up more than half of flu-related hospitalizations. Public health experts believe that’s because the H1N1 strain is more dangerous for the younger people who assume they don’t need to worry about the flu.
So far, a 29-year-old woman and a 41-year-old man have died after experiencing flu-like symptoms. But states are beginning to confirm additional deaths. There have been at least 16 flu-related deaths in the Bay Area alone among people under the age of 65.
Dr. Daniel Spogen, who chairs the department of family and community medicine at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, told HealthDay that young adults incorrectly assume they don’t need a flu shot. “The ones that tend to be sick this season are young and otherwise healthy adults,” Spogen noted. “If you take a look at the data, the people who are getting sick enough to be hospitalized are the ones who didn’t get their flu shot.”
According to a new analysis released on Tuesday, almost two-thirds of people between the ages of 18 and 65 skipped out on the flu shot during the 2012–2013 season. That’s in line with data from CDC officials, who estimate that just 30 percent of people in this age range get vaccinated against the flu each year.
Last year’s flu season was particularly harsh, resulting in overcrowded emergency rooms and leading some lawmakers to declare an official state of emergency. But public health officials warn that this season threatens to be even worse. “Based on what we’re seeing so far, this year will be a very different picture than last year,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told USA Today in an interview last week. “Mark my word, by the end of next week we’ll probably see some fear and panic as it starts to hit kids.”
Last year, 90 percent of the children who died from the flu hadn’t received their vaccinations.