Why did flu season start so early this year?

Why did flu season start so early this year?

  • Influenza cases are increasing rapidly, especially in southern and eastern states.
  • In October, 1.6 million people in the US had symptoms of the virus.
  • Reasons for the rapid spread include reduced immunity, low vaccination rates and the lifting of measures to mitigate COVID-19.
  • The flu vaccine still provides the best protection against the virus.

This year’s flu season is already showing signs that we could see an extremely high number of cases.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that – in October alone – at least 1.6 million individuals in the US had the flu, while at least 13,000 cases resulted in hospitalization. A total of 730 deaths were recorded, two of which were children.

We are still months away from the estimate top flu season, which usually occurs in February and March. This led the CDC to state that this flu season is likely to be the worst in 13 years. So what’s going on?

According to experts, three primary factors have led to the rapid increase in cases.

Even as we move away from the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects continue to be felt.

Restrictions related to COVID-19, such as wearing masks and social distancing, have significantly reduced the transmission of the virus.

The result?

“Unprecedentedly mild flu season in 2020-2021,” it was stated Dr. AS Jason Kesslerhead of the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Morristown Medical Centerpart of Atlantic Health System.

Kessler told Healthline, “a year’s worth of exposure [to viruses] it helps ‘prime’ our immune system to prevent or mitigate these infections each year.”

Measures against COVID-19 prevented exposure and “this probably had the unintended effect of increasing the susceptibility of many individuals to infection and disease,” he added.

With the lifting of measures to mitigate the disease of COVID-19, the seasonal flu is spreading again.

Additionally, with few flu cases during the pandemic, “the virus has had plenty of time to mutate,” dr. Shruti Gohil, associate medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention at UCI Health. He said. And, despite our weaker immunity, it allowed him to hit harder.

Two factors linked to the flu vaccine may play a role in the rise in cases.

The first is the number of people who are vaccinated (or not). Kessler noted that “the pandemic is associated with a general increase in concerns about vaccine hesitancy and resistance.”

He noted that, although not yet proven, this may lead to fewer people getting the flu shot. And, “if flu vaccination is not widely spread in the community, there could be a more intense spread of flu.”

“Influenza vaccine rates are down in the 2020-2021 season compared to the previous year,” Gohil said.

Another factor is that the flu vaccine is not 100% effective against the disease. It is developed each year according to what researchers believe will be the most prevalent strains for the flu season. Sometimes strains change or mutate by the time the flu season starts, making the vaccine less effective.

In general, the flu vaccine was around 30 to 60 percent effective in preventing the flu in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But that doesn’t mean you should avoid getting vaccinated.

“Some protection is better than none, and we’re talking about a potentially deadly virus,” he explained Dr. Cesar A. Ariasco-director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the Houston Methodist Research Institute.

“The flu kills approx 35,000 people every year in the US,” he told Healthline. “The whole idea [of vaccination] is to try to protect you from this. Ask anyone if they want to avoid death, and I think the answer would be a resounding yes!”

Another reason why flu cases seem to be high is that other diseases, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), are spreading widely and can be mistaken for flu.

“It is important to recognize that what is commonly referred to as the ‘flu’ may not always be caused by the influenza virus,” Kessler found.

Instead, he continued, they “may be associated with infection with several different viruses: influenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), parainfluenza virus, and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), as well as others.”

These viruses spread among the population in the same way and have many of the same symptoms — such as fever, runny nose, cough and fatigue.

Unless a test is performed, it can be difficult to tell them apart.

A general increase in other viruses, such as RSV, is also likely due to the lifting of post-pandemic restrictions, Arias added, as we are in closer contact with others while having reduced immunity.

CDC data shows that flu cases are currently high among the population in eastern states, such as New York, Virginia and North Carolina.

That’s not surprising, Gohil found, because “in general, flu infection tends to move from east to west.”

Arias explained that this could be because the East Coast faces colder weather first, and viruses thrive in cooler temperatures.

However, southern states – such as Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia – have also been hit hard by the flu.

“I think the factor in these states is the much lower vaccination rate than you see in other parts of the US,” Arias said.

Historically, these areas have shown have up to 50% fewer flu shots compared to northern states like Maine, New Hampshire and Washington.

“Influenza-like illnesses and positive flu test rates are higher this year compared to similar time periods in previous years,” Gohil said.

However, it is not just the US that is facing an earlier wave of infections. “The flu appeared two months earlier in Australia,” Gohil said, but so did Chile experienced the same pattern.

The number of hospitalized persons is also significantly higher compared to this time in previous years. The CDC reported that the ‘cumulative rate of hospitalizations…is higher than the rate recorded at week 43 during any previous season since 2010-2011.’

However, it is the same population that is admitted to the hospital. “As in previous years, hospitalizations were highest among the elderly (age 65 or older) and the very young (age 4 and under),” Gohil said.

“In children, the less developed immune system is probably the reason,” she continued. Meanwhile, “elderly patients have weakened immune systems associated with aging.”

Influenza cases and related hospitalizations are rising rapidly. There are believed to be three key reasons for this:

  • Reduced immunity and exposure to germs after pandemic restrictions
  • Poor vaccination acceptance and potentially reduced vaccine effectiveness
  • Simultaneous spread of other respiratory viruses with similar symptoms

Children, older individuals, and those with compromised immune systems are at the highest risk for serious flu symptoms. However, noted Arias, “even if you’re perfectly healthy, certain individuals will [still] have a serious illness.”

The best protection against the flu is vaccination. But wearing a mask — especially in crowded indoor spaces — can also offer some level of defense. Especially if you’re a high-risk person, “a mask can save your life,” Arias said.


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