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Inside a flu vaccine lab
02:31 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Flu activity is higher than usual for this time of year, CDC says

Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina report the highest activity

Seven children have died, and there have been 856 hospitalizations

CNN  — 

After a slow start in October, flu season in the United States is gaining speed, particularly in the South.

Flu activity, which has been increasing since the start of November, is now higher than usual for this time of year, according to a report published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flu is a contagious, viral illness that causes mild to severe symptoms that, in rare cases, can lead to death. Seven children have died, and an additional 856 flu-related hospitalizations have occurred as of December 2, according to the CDC’s weekly surveillance report.

“Flu is increasing. We’re seeing a pretty steep increase in influenza activity across the US but especially in the South,” said Brendan Flannery, a co-author of the new report and an epidemiologist in the CDC’s flu division.

Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Virginia reported widespread activity during the week ending December 2, the surveillance report showed. Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina recorded the highest number of outpatient visits for all influenza-like illnesses.

“We recommend that for everyone 6 months and older, if you haven’t received your vaccine yet, now is the time to get it,” said Shannon Stokley, an associate director for science in the immunization services division at the CDC.

Despite this guidance, fewer than half of Americans have received a jab this season. Common concerns focus on efficacy of the vaccine and side effects.

Low-tech prevention

“Among the general population, about 39% have received the vaccine,” said Stokley, co-author of a new CDC report that canvased people by phone and internet in early November.

Experts believe the flu virus is spread when a sick person talks, sneezes or coughs. Common symptoms include cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, fever and chills, muscle and body aches, headaches and fatigue. Most people recover in less than two weeks.

However, as Dr. Tanya Altmann, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, pointed out, the flu has potentially serious complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus and ear infections.

“Anything that you can do to help prevent your family from getting the flu is very beneficial,” said Altmann, who was not involved in the CDC research. Her advice includes the CDC recommendation to get a flu shot, but she also adheres to low-tech techniques of contagious disease prevention: “good hand-washing techniques, teaching kids not to share their germs, staying home when you’re sick and disinfecting common surfaces,” she said.

Infants and pregnant women, particularly those in the second and third trimesters, are most vulnerable to developing complications, according to the CDC.

“We have some evidence that the vaccination protects the woman from influenza herself, and it can protect the infant in the six months of life from getting influenza before we are able to vaccinate the infant,” Flannery said. Both the CDC and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend flu shots for all women who are or will be pregnant during the flu season.

Many mothers-to-be, though, have not heeded this advice.

Are pregnant women getting ‘appropriate’ care?

Only one-third of pregnant women have received a flu shot, even though the overwhelming majority of them visited a health care provider at least once, according to another new CDC analysis of data gathered from an internet survey conducted during the first week of November.

More than a quarter of pregnant women reported that medical staff did not recommend or offer a flu shot.

“It makes me a little sad that people across the country – especially pregnant women – may not be getting the recommended and appropriate health care,” Altmann said.

Coverage was highest for pregnant women whose doctors recommended and offered the vaccine: Just over half of women in this category had received a shot.

Side effects and vaccine efficacy