As seasonal influenza continues to hit earlier and harder than it has in recent years, healthcare and government officials are working to get more people vaccinated.
The message that the American Public Health Association is trying to get out is that “it's not too late by any means to get your vaccination,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the APHA. Benjamin said he expects the situation to get worse and the best thing that can be done is to get more people inoculated.
In Boston, where Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency Wednesday, 21 community health centers committed to providing free clinics this weekend where people can get the vaccine. In addition, close to 45,000 residents will be called through the city's automated call system suggesting they get vaccinated.
In its last weekly flu tracker, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 5.6% of visits to healthcare providers are for influenza-like illnesses
—which is already above last year's decidedly milder peak of 2.2%.
The CDC does not believe this year's season has peaked yet.
The agency reported that there are three viruses that have been identified; two are influenza A: H3N2, which is accounting for 98% of those cases, and H1N1, better known as the virus behind 2009's swine flu pandemic, which accounts for 2%.
The more virulent influenza A strain is causing most of the increased patient volume across the country, particularly in large cities such as New York, Chicago and Boston. Dr. William Schaffner, who chairs the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that deaths have been seen even in otherwise healthy young people. “This is an infection that can take a very healthy person and make them very ill.”
The influenza B strain in circulation was not included in this year's flu vaccine and has accounted for about 8%-10% of visits to healthcare providers.
Regardless of the strain, so far the country is not at an epidemic level, experts said. “It's just a heavy flu season,” said Dr. Christine Laine, a practicing physician, editor in chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine and senior vice president at the American College of Physicians. The last few flu seasons have been relatively quiet, plus there have been cases of whooping cough and a gastrointestinal virus that in combination may make it seem like a worse flu season than it is, Laine said.
“Last year was a very, very mild flu season. So we might have gotten spoiled.”