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This Year's Flu Season Could Be A Bad One

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We may be in for a bad flu season this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is warning that today. And as NPR's Rob Stein reports, the reason is the main strain of flu virus that's circulating.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: The flu is caused by lots of different strains of the flu virus. Some tend to be pretty mild, others really nasty. The bad news this year, according to CDC Director Tom Frieden, is that one of the nasty strains is showing up all over the place. It's called H3N2.

TOM FRIEDEN: Flu always has the potential to be serious. But H3N2 viruses tend to be associated with more severe seasons. The rate of hospitalization and death can be twice as high or more than in flu seasons when H3 doesn't predominate.

STEIN: Older people, people with other health problems and kids tend to get hit the hardest. In fact, at least five children have already died this year from the flu. And that's not the only bad news. It's not just the usual H3N2 virus this year. In lots of places, it's mutated slightly.

FRIEDEN: Unfortunately, about half of the H3N2 viruses that we've analyzed this season are different from the H3N2 virus that's included in this year's flu vaccine. They're different enough that we're concerned that protection from vaccination against these H3N2 viruses may be lower than we usually see.

STEIN: It's too soon to know just how much lower. But Frieden says none of this means people shouldn't get their flu shots - just the opposite.

FRIEDEN: Getting a vaccine, even if it doesn't provide as good protection as we would hope, would be more important than ever and remains the single most effective way to protect yourself against the flu.

STEIN: That's because the vaccine still protects against other flu strains that are circulating and may at least help fight off the mutated H3N2 viruses. Frieden also urged anyone who does get sick to see their doctor right away. That way, they can get treated as soon as possible, including getting antiviral drugs.

FRIEDEN: Antivirals aren't a substitute for vaccination. Vaccination prevents flu. But antivirals are an important second line of defense to treat the flu. And this year, treatment with antiviral drugs is especially important, particularly for people who are at high risk of serious flu complications or for people who are very sick with flu.

STEIN: These drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, can make the flu milder, help people get better faster and cut the chances they'll end up in a hospital, in intensive care or die. And they work best when people get them within 48 hours of getting sick. But Frieden says most flu seasons, doctors don't use them nearly enough.

FRIEDEN: Probably fewer than 1 in 6 people who are severely ill with flu get antiviral drugs. Very important that we do better for people who are severely ill or who could become severely ill with influenza.

STEIN: So Frieden is urging doctors not to hesitate to use antiviral drugs in the hopes of minimizing the impact of what could be a very bad flu season. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.