CDC: 50,000 Americans could die of influenza this year
The current flu epidemic is the most serious outbreak since the pandemic of Swine Flu in 2009 and the CDC is sounding the alarm about it.
There are several factors that make this flu season more dangerous than others. But the bottom line is that the CDC is estimating a death toll of 50,000.
There are several unique, worrisome aspects to this season’s outbreak: It’s hitting everywhere at once; it’s continuing rather than peaking quickly; and it’s affecting a broader range of older Americans than in the past. The entire continental U.S. reported widespread flu every week for the past three weeks, Jernigan said.
“We often see different parts of the country light up at different times, but for the past three weeks the entire country has been experiencing lots of flu, all at the same time,” he said, adding: “We have several weeks to go.”
The season is shaping up to be similar to the epidemic of late 2014 and early 2015, which entailed 710,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths, according to the CDC. The agency is expecting similar numbers this year, Jernigan said.
Activity levels vary in different states, however. Hospitalizations in California are running at four times the level seen in 2014 and 2015, while Minnesota’s rate is double. In New York, the numbers are starting to surpass the national average.
An additional, unexpected finding is the flu’s impact on middle-aged Americans, who typically withstand it pretty well. While hospitalization rates are predictably highest among the elderly, younger baby boomers aged 50 to 65 are in second place, Jernigan said. This is especially bad news for them, given a new study linking the flu to increased risk of heart attacks.
“Baby boomers have higher rates than their grandchildren right now,” he said. “Those folks are ones who really would benefit from having a higher vaccination coverage.” And not only for their own benefit, or even their families. These Americans are at the peak of their careers with many in managerial roles, Jernigan explained. When they’re home sick in bed, it can negatively impact their businesses.
There appears to be enough vaccine on hand to handle the demand. But health professionals are worried because the last few years have seen errors creep into the production process, making the vaccine less effective. Scientists are looking to develop a "universal" flu vaccine that would make it unnecessary to develop a new vaccine every year to combat a different strain of the disease.
The definition of a universal flu vaccine is somewhat flexible. Ideally, a single injection would protect against all known and emerging influenza A strains and last a lifetime, said Peter Palese, a microbiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. More modest proposals envision a one-shot vaccine that would protect against getting the flu for anywhere from three to 20 years.
Palese's laboratory is one of three different research groups at Mount Sinai exploring a universal flu vaccine and one of numerous efforts under way mostly in academia, biotech firms and NIH. A handful of major pharmaceutical companies are supporting universal flu vaccine research, including GlaxoSmithKline; Janssen Vaccines, a division of Johnson & Johnson; and Sanofi.
Palese's team has developed a universal flu vaccine that is now in the first phase of testing in humans, with support from GSK and the Gates Foundation. "What changes in the influenza virus from year to year is the hemagglutinin (HA)," Palese explained, "which is the major protein against which we make an immune response."
The HA comprises a head and a stalk. "When our immune system sees a flu virus, it makes antibodies against the head," he said. Palese's vaccine aims to stimulate antibodies that bind to the more "conserved" areas on the stalk and which remain the same every year and are common to most seasonal flu viruses. "We want to redirect the body's immune response to the stalk.
The big danger from flu is that it lowers your immune system, making you susceptible to other, more serious diseases. It would be in everyone's interest - especially your own - to go out and get a flu shot as soon as possible.