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Last year’s flu season was deadliest in decades, says CDC

REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang
The CDC estimates at least 80,000 Americans died of flu-related complications last winter.

You weren’t imagining it. Last year’s flu season was the worst in many years, according to data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC estimates at least 80,000 Americans died of flu-related complications last winter, exceeding the 56,000 deaths that occurred during the 2012-2013 flu season.

That made 2017-2018 the deadliest flu season in decades.

Last year’s flu-related deaths included 180 children, the highest in a regular (non-pandemic) flu season since 2012-2013, although not as high as the 358 children who died during the 2009 flu pandemic.

In addition to the deaths, a record-breaking 900,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized last year for flu-related complications, which include such life-threatening illnesses as pneumonia, sepsis, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain).

“Last season illustrated what every public health official knows — influenza can be serious in people of all ages, even in the healthiest children and adults,” said Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. Surgeon General, in a released statement. “It is critical that we focus national attention on the importance of influenza vaccination to protect as many people as possible every season.”

A double whammy

As CDC officials point out, not only was last year’s flu strain particularly severe, the vaccine against it was only 40 percent effective. In other words, getting the vaccine last year lowered an individual’s risk of catching the flu by only 40 percent.

This year’s flu appears to be milder, and early signs suggest that the vaccine developed against it will be more protective, according to the CDC. But, of course, flu seasons are unpredictable.

Health officials are urging people to get vaccinated against the flu — preferably before the end of October.  Last year, the number of flu cases began to increase in earnest in November and peaked in late January and February.

Vaccination is “the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses,” says the CDC.

The agency estimates that the 2017-2018 vaccine, despite offering only 40 percent protection, prevented 5.3 million illnesses and 85,000 hospitalizations.

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) offers a “vaccine clinic look-up” feature on its website to help you find places offering flu vaccines near you.

‘It’s up to parents’

Officials stress that children need to be vaccinated as well as adults. Most children who die of the flu, they point out, have no underlying medical conditions.

About 80 percent of the 180 children who died last year from flu-related complications had not been vaccinated against the illness. The proportion of U.S. children (aged six months to 17 years) who received vaccinations varied widely by state, from 42 percent in Wyoming to 76 percent in Rhode Island, and the national average was 58 percent.

Here in Minnesota, 62 percent of children were vaccinated last year.

“Since children can’t make the decision to get vaccinated themselves, it’s up to parents and health care providers to make it happen,” said Kris Ehresmann, MDH’s director of infectious disease, in a statement released by the agency on Thursday. “Parents should ask their health care provider about influenza vaccine and providers should check the vaccination status of patients at every visit and strongly recommend vaccination.”

For more information: You can find more information about protecting yourself and your family from the flu at the websites for the MDH and the CDC.

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