Flu is now at an epidemic level in the United States, including Georgia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday.
The number of states reporting high flu levels reached 22 last week, up from 13 the week before, the agency said. Georgia was one of the earliest states to report high levels.
While the levels are not particularly high this year compared to other winters – flu often reaches epidemic levels in its annual cycle – the influenza strains that are making us sick are different this year.
For one thing, this year’s flu vaccine isn’t as effective as scientists would like against the most common kind of flu virus this year ‑ H3N2.
Flu viruses change genetically from year to year, and this year, the virus changed after pharmaceutical companies had already started the manufacturing process.
But getting a flu shot is still the most important thing you can do to protect yourself, even though the vaccine may not prevent all infections from H3N2, said Lou Kudon, program manager at the Athens-based Northeast Health District.
“There is one strain it’s not as effective against, but it’s highly probable that (the vaccine) will make it less virulent,” he said. “It will be milder.”
And getting timely medical treatment will also keep symptoms milder, he said.
“If you’re showing signs, get Tamiflu,” he said.
Tamiflu is one of a handful of medicines that can reduce the severity of an influenza infection.
Nationwide, 15 children have died of complications of flu since flu season began Oct. 1. But it’s too early to say for sure whether children are more susceptible to this year’s strains, according to CDC scientists.
Flu typically peaks between December and January, so influenza infection levels, while already unusually high in Georgia, could get more intense.
People can somewhat protect themselves from infection by keeping their hands washed and avoiding close contact with people who are infected. Covering your nose and mouth with a tissue during coughing or sneezing, cleaning or disinfecting surfaces that could harbor flu virus, and avoiding touching nose, eyes and mouth can also help
The CDC recommends that people with the flu stay home while they’re sick, and to stay home for 24 hours past the time when they have an elevated temperature.
But Northeast Georgia health officials recommend staying at home even longer – three days after the last elevated temperature.