2017-2018 Flu Season Is A Wake-Up Call Says CDC Acting Director

The CDC’s acting director provides a somber flu update and stresses the need to stay vigilant against the virus.

As flu activity continues to increase in the United States, an update provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) underscores the growing severity of the situation.

“I wish there were better news this week,” Anne Schuchat MD, RADM, USPHS, the CDC’s acting director lamented. “But with flu activity continuing to go on the rise, we seem to be on track to break some recent records.”

The records she’s referring to have to do with the growing levels of influenza-like illness (ILI) and hospitalizations. ILI levels this season continuing to increase, but already, they’re “the highest we’ve seen since the pandemic in 2009,” as Alicia Budd, MPH, epidemiologist in the Influenza Division of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases put it in yesterday’s Clinician Outreach and Communication Activity (COCA) webinar.

“This doesn’t mean that we have a pandemic,” Dr. Schuchat stressed. “It’s a signal of how very intense this flu season has been.”

She added that overall hospitalization rates are now “significantly higher” than what we’ve seen at this point in the season in previous flu seasons. “Our pneumonia and influenza deaths are not very high compared with recent years, but more deaths are likely to happen. We do expect to see a lot more deaths.”

As for the severity of the flu season, “It’s just week 11, there could be several more weeks of flu,” Dr. Schuchat said. “It’s really the question of where will we be at the end of the year?”

The best form of protection against the virus? Vaccination.

“It’s important to remember that there are ways to prevent getting sick, and this can be crucial in a season like this one,” she said. Vaccination is at the top of the list. Dr. Schuchat addressed the ongoing concerns regarding the effectiveness of the current seasonal flu vaccine in a simple, straightforward way: “Some protection is better than none.”

“Because of the ongoing intensity of the flu season and the increase in influenza B and H1N1 strains we do continue to recommend the vaccine, despite it being this late in the season,” she added.

In addition to getting vaccinated, she encourages everyone to “practice simple good health habits,” such as washing your hands, covering your mouth when you cough, and staying home from work if you feel ill. “It’s such an important recommendation to follow. What might be mild symptoms for you, might be deadly for someone else,” she said.

Dr. Schuchat also stressed the importance of antivirals. “There is a lot of flu out there right now. If it looks like flu, it probably is,” she said. “Antivirals can mean the difference between a mild illness and hospitalization.”

Taking the medicine within 48 hours of symptom onset “will give those drugs the best chance of working,” she said. Several studies have shown that starting treatment earlier rather than later can be really beneficial in reducing the risk of complications; it could also shorten the length of illness as well.

Dr. Schuchat admitted that there have been antiviral shortages in places experiencing high flu activity, but products are available. Patients may find themselves making more phone calls to more pharmacies to obtain needed antivirals, but they are there.

“The supply of the antiviral drugs exceeds the demand that we’re having, although prescriptions are higher than in previous years,” Dr. Schuchat said. “Millions of doses, literally, have been produced.” CDC staff are working with manufacturers of brand and generic drugs, distributors, pharmacies, pharmacy benefit managers, and even insurers to ensure that antivirals remain accessible. “We are working hard with the system to try and improve it as quickly as possible,” she said.

Health care practitioners and the general public can expect more updates in the coming weeks as flu season continues in the United States.

“We have a lot to learn still. It’s a wake-up call about how severe influenza can be, and it underscores that we can never let our guard down against it,” she concluded. “The virus is always changing, and so, we need to make sure we are faster than it is.”