Flu season ramping up early, could be bad, experts say

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DENVER -- Flu season is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade--and experts say it could get really ugly this year.

The Centers for Disease Control says the main strain infecting people right now can make them sicker than other types.

But that’s not the case in Colorado.

For Judith Phillips, of Denver, a second of pain now, means preventing days of pain later.

"The longest I was sick was a week. I decided that was it. I got a flu shot and so far, knock on wood, I haven't gotten sick yet," says Phillips, about getting her seventh flu shot in seven years at Guardian Urgent Care at Broadway and Ellsworth Ave. in Denver.

Phillips heeds the warning about getting a flu shot because we’re entering what could be the worst flu season in years.

"The amount of cases, this is an earlier onset season for sure. Usually we'll see a straggler, one or two a day, at this time of year. Six to eight cases a day are walking through here is not unusual," says Dr. Rafer Leach, of Guardian Urgent Care.

The last time flu arrived this early was 2003—and it was one of the most deadly seasons—killing more than 48,000 people.

The predominant strain then is the same now: H3N2--although not in Colorado.

"We're seeing a lot of B-strain. About two-thirds of what we see in Colorado is B. That is little different than the national picture,” says Dr. Lisa Miller, with the Colorado Dept. of Health.

And it’s put 52 people in the hospital so far—significantly above the typical eight.

"If I get the shot, I should not get sick. That's my plan," says Kim, who didn’t want to give her last name. She read on the internet that this would be a bad flu season and made an immediate trip to Guardian Urgent Care.

To best protect yourself against the miserable, hit-by-a-Mack-truck illness, doctors say a shot is your best bet.

But so is hand-washing--since the flu virus can exist on hard surfaces, including keyboards and light switches for up to 18 hours.

"You rarely catch from someone sneezing directly in your face…They sneeze in their hands. They touch a doorknob. You touch a doorknob and then you itch your eye,” says Dr. Leach.

The current flu vaccine is a 90 percent match for the H3N2 virus.

But Dr. Miller says it’s still very effective against the main strain we’re seeing here, Influenza B. That’s because that B-strain is in the vaccine.

More than a third of people nationally have received a flu shot.

Colorado does not track those numbers.

But Phillips is happy she’s among those taking precautions. She knows not everyone is, including a young, male co-worker.

“I asked him if he was getting a flu shot. He said, ‘I never get one and I never get the flu.’ He’s young. I’m at the age where either I can’t afford to get really sick and I don’t want to get sick. With age, grows wisdom,” she smiles.

CDC: Now is the time to get your flu shot

If you haven't received your flu shot yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says now is the time to make sure you're protected. The agency says flu season is ramping up early this year - for the first time in almost a decade.

According to CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, H3N2 is the predominant strain this year. It's generally associated with a severe flu season. "The strains we are seeing suggest this could be a bad flu year," Frieden said. "But this year's vaccine is an excellent match with the influenza that's circulating."

Dr. Melinda Wharton, Acting Director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, says current activity is highest in the South.

"We're seeing the highest level in the southeastern and south central region of the United States," she said. "Five states had high levels: Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Moderate levels of illness have been recorded in Missouri and Georgia."

The CDC says about 123 million doses of the vaccine have already been distributed to health care providers, and about 112 million people have already been vaccinated.

Among doctors, nurses and pharmacists, about 80% to 90% have already been vaccinated, Frieden said, along with almost half of all pregnant women. The number of children being vaccinated has also increased. "I encourage everyone 6 months and up to get vaccinated," Frieden said.

Each year there are approximately 200,000 hospitalizations for flu-related illnesses.

This map from the CDC shows geographic spread and does not measure the severity of influenza activity.

This map from the CDC shows geographic spread and does not measure the severity of influenza activity.