Did you catch the flu this winter? Probably not.
This is turning out to be one of the puniest flu seasons in recent years — and one of the latest to arrive.
If you haven’t noticed, we’re now at what may be the high point of the season. And while the peaks of past flu seasons have looked like the Rocky Mountains, the 2015-2016 season is registering more like a molehill.
Hospitals around Kansas City have been seeing more flu cases in the past few weeks, but nothing like the numbers that filled emergency rooms during last winter’s brutal season. The situation has been the same in much of the rest of the country, with most states, including Kansas and Missouri, reporting low or minimal flu activity.
“It has been a fairly mild season, so far,” said Joe Bresee of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division. “I wouldn’t predict if it will stay that way. I never predict anything about the flu.”
The latest data released Friday by the CDC show a tiny down-tick in flu activity nationwide last week. In Missouri, doctors’ office visits for flu-like illnesses remained essentially unchanged from the week before. In Kansas, flu activity was up slightly, but still well below the peak levels of the previous two flu seasons.
At the University of Kansas Hospital, flu-related admissions have been “flatter than a fritter,” said Lee Norman, the hospital’s chief medical officer. KU Hospital had just eight flu-related inpatients in the last two weeks of February, compared with an average of 35 to 40 flu patients at a time in February of last year.
Children’s Mercy Hospital has had its beds full for the past few weeks, but the kids have been fighting respiratory syncytial virus and eight other respiratory viruses, said Mary Anne Jackson, the hospital’s chief of infectious diseases. “Influenza is a piece of it,” she said, “but not a prominent piece of it.”
The Kansas City Health Department has received reports this flu season of 478 confirmed cases through the week of Feb. 21, with most of the cases reported since Valentine’s Day. By late February of last year, the health department had already received more than 3,500 reports of flu.
Why so little flu this season? Could it have been the balmy temperatures this winter? After all, there is some science to the idea that flu viruses thrive when the air is cold and dry.
“It is tempting to think a mild winter has something to do with it,” Bresee said. “But it’s probably a lot of other things.”
That includes this season’s version of the flu vaccine, Bresee said. Last year, the vaccine that scientists formulated was well off the mark because it didn’t account for mutations in the most common strain of the virus that was circulating. Many people who received shots still became ill.
But this time, scientists came closer to the bull’s-eye, providing a vaccine that the CDC estimates as 59 percent effective in preventing a visit to the doctor.
“I think we can credit the vaccine for limiting the disease,” Bresee said. “This year especially, I think, we would all have expected these curves (on flu charts) to be higher without the vaccine.”
And why is the flu so late this time? Well, actually, it isn’t. We just have poor memories.
Yes, since the winter of 2012, the flu has been a regular part of the holiday season for three years running, peaking from mid-December through mid-January. In 2009, flu cases peaked in October, the very beginning of the season.
But the timing of those flu seasons was unusual, Bresee said. Historically, about 80 percent of flu seasons have reached their peak from January through March.
“I think we’ve gotten used to these odd (recent) years and taken that for the new normal,” said Jackson of Children’s Mercy. “We still have to be vigilant.”
And just because a flu season may be termed “mild,” that just means fewer people are becoming ill. Those who do get sick still get socked with the same fever, sore throat, muscle aches and congestion that they would in a severe flu season.
“It’s still a bad virus,” Jackson said.
That’s why she and other health experts are still recommending that people get vaccinated, even this late in the season.
Flu seasons can last through April and even into May; there’s still plenty of time for the volatile viruses to cause problems.
“There possibly could be an onslaught (of flu) in the next few weeks, or there won’t be. We have no way of predicting that,” said Denesha Snell of the Kansas City Health Department.
Jackson reads the data a bit more hopefully. “It looks like maybe we’re at the peak and starting to decrease,” she said.
Bresee of the CDC wasn’t ready to commit. If flu activity continues to trend down for three weeks in a row, “that would mean something,” he said.