Flu hospitalizations among the elderly rose sharply last week, prompting federal officials to take unusual steps to make more flu medicines available and to urge wider use of them as soon as symptoms appear.
The U.S. is about halfway through the flu season, which is shaping up to be worse than average and a bad one for the elderly, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New figures from the CDC show the flu epidemic is continuing, with widespread activity in all states but Tennessee and Hawaii.
Nine more children or teens have died of the flu, bringing the nation's total this flu season to 29, health officials reported Friday. That's close to the 34 pediatric deaths reported during all of the last flu season, although that one was unusually light. In a typical season, about 100 children die of the flu and officials said there is no way to know whether deaths this season will be higher or lower than usual.
So far, half of confirmed flu cases are in people 65 and older. Lab-confirmed flu hospitalizations totaled 19 for every 100,000 in the population, but 82 per 100,000 among those 65 and older, "which is really quite a high rate," Frieden said.
"We expect to see both the number and the rates of both hospitalizations and deaths rise further in the next week or so as the flu epidemic progresses," so prompt treatment with antivirals is key to preventing deaths, he said.
Two drugs — Tamiflu and Relenza — can cut the severity and risk of death from the flu but must be started within 48 hours of first symptoms to do much good. To increase supplies of Tamiflu, said Dr. Margaret Hamburg, head of the Food and Drug Administration, said the agency had allowed Genentech to distribute additional doses that have old packaging information.
This year's season is earlier than normal and the dominant flu strain is one that tends to make people sicker.
Health officials say it's not too late to get a flu shot to help protect against the flu. Vaccinations are recommended for anyone 6 months or older.
Last week, the CDC said the flu again surpassed an "epidemic" threshold, based on monitoring of deaths from flu and a frequent complication, pneumonia. The flu epidemic happens every year and officials say this year's vaccine is a good match for strains that are going around.
The government doesn't keep a running tally of adult deaths from the flu, but estimates that it kills about 24,000 people most years.