Doctors say we're entering the worst flu season in a decade, Boston's mayor has declared a public health emergency, and Chicago hospitals are having to turn away sick people. So we should panic, right? Not yet, according to recent flu epidemics. With particularly virulent strains reemerging and emergency room admissions spiking, let's contextualize this flu season by seeing how it stacks up to past outbreaks.
Time of onset
This is the earliest flu season onset in a decade, reports ABC News' Alex Perez reports. This bout of the flu has arrived a full four months earlier than 2009's outbreak of the H1N1 "swine flu" virus, undoubtedly the worst flu epidemic to hit the U.S. in recent memory — and much, much worse than this year's is expected to be. That saga began in late April, well into spring. Most flu seasons kick in around mid-January, but this year's flu season started snowballing towards the end of December.
This flu season brings back the H3N2 variety of influenza, a strain that brings on stronger symptoms than common flu strains — and sticks around longer. The strain was prevalent in 2004, which saw elevated death rates from the flu. Dr. William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, admits that "this is a bad year," but also says that an H3N2 pandemic doesn't appear to be as severe a threat as 2009's H1N1 outbreak. And the good news is that these strains are well-matched by current vaccines. However, only 37 percent of Americans got a flu shot this season and it's only effective in 60 percent of people.