Flu season left highest child death count in at least 5 years

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Harsh flu season has taken a heavy toll, recording the highest death count among children in at least five years. | AP file photo

A brutal flu season is finally on its last legs, but it has taken a heavy toll, including the highest death count among children in at least five years, health officials say.

Low levels of “flu-like-illness” are still popping up in a few spots, according to the latest report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  But the coast-to-coast epidemic of midwinter is history.

“We never officially declare flu season over … there’s always flu circulating, even in the summer,” said Lynnette Brammer, head of domestic influenza surveillance at CDC. But, she said, the flu has done most of its nasty work — for now.

The CDC has previously estimated that a severe season can kill up to 56,000 people, hospitalize up to 710,000 and sicken up to 35 million. This season “may have been worse than that,” Brammer said. She said the agency will have to do some more number crunching to know for sure.

CDC says that between last fall and this spring, the flu:

• Killed at least 160 children, making this the deadliest flu season for children since at least 2012-2013, when 171 died. This year’s toll is likely to rise as delayed reports trickle in, Brammer said.

• Hospitalized 105 out of every 100,000 people, hitting those over age 65 the hardest.  That is the highest rate of flu hospitalization the CDC has recorded since it started keeping comparable records in 2010.

• Sent feverish, coughing, achy people to doctors’ offices at a peak rate not seen since 2009, when a new swine flu virus caused a pandemic.

In short, this was a season that reminded people that the flu can be serious, especially for the very young, the very old and the chronically ill. But all kinds of people got sick.

“We did have a couple of scares with some very sick younger people, in their 30s and 40s,” said Melisa Lai-Becker, chief of the emergency department at Cambridge Health Alliance Everett Hospital near Boston. Lai-Becker, a spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, said she is still seeing some flu patients.

One thing she said she noticed this year: Some people who got flu shots still got sick, but they got less sick than people who skipped the shots. That backs up published studies.

“This year we saw a lot of healthy children and adults lose their lives to flu or be hospitalized for flu,” said Serese Marotta, chief operating officer of Families Fighting Flu, a non-profit group that promotes flu vaccination and receives some funding from vaccine makers. “I hope that people don’t forget about that. I hope that when it comes time to get vaccinated for 2018-2019, they remember how severe this flu season was.”

Marotta, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., lost her own 5-year-old son, Joseph, to flu in 2009.

CDC recommends annual flu vaccines for everyone over age 6 months, generally starting in September. Vaccination rates have slowly risen in recent years, reaching 43% for adults and 59% for children in 2016-2017.  This year’s numbers are not yet public.

Flu vaccines typically prevent 40% to 60% of flu cases.  This year’s versions were just 36% effective overall, but 59% effective in children, according to preliminary data.  The dominant flu strain this year, a type called H3N2, is known as a tough vaccine target.

This harsh flu season has increased interest in a “universal” flu vaccine that would work against multiple strains for multiple years. On Friday, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Lucy and Larry Page announced a $12 million donation to accelerate those efforts.

In the meantime, an imperfect vaccine “doesn’t mean you don’t get the flu vaccine,” said Rade Vukmir, a professor of emergency medicine at Temple University and a spokesman for the emergency medicine group.

And the tail end of flu season does not mean you stop watching out for germs that can make you sick, he added. They are out there year-round, he said, “so keep washing your hands.”

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