Is the flu an epidemic or pandemic?
Don't be lulled by reports that this year's awful flu season is finally on the wane. Here in Kansas City, that's only half true.
After weeks of influenza unlike anything the country had seen in almost a decade, the Centers for Disease Control said last week that flu cases may have finally peaked nationally.
But while Missouri appears to be joining the rest of the country on the downslope, cases in Kansas are still stubbornly sticking at their highest levels.
"Kansas is still in the peak of its flu season," Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman Kara Titus said via email. "Influenza-like illness continues to account for approximately 12 percent of visits to emergency departments and clinics in Kansas."
The decline in cases nationwide is driven in part by decreases in the western United States, where the season peaked earlier. As of Feb. 17, the CDC had downgraded Washington and Idaho to low flu activity, while categorizing Montana and North Dakota even lower, at "minimal activity."
Florida is also low and Maine is minimal now. At one point, all of the contiguous U.S. was classified as "high activity."
Missouri and Kansas were still at that level as of Feb. 17. But Missouri had experienced two straight weeks of decreased flu-like illness visits to both emergency rooms and outpatient clinics as a percentage of all visits, falling below 9 percent in both areas.
Not so in Kansas, where the trajectory of visits for flu-like illness is still going up, although more slowly than before.
Titus said everyone older than 6 months should still contact a doctor or local health department to see about getting a flu vaccine if they haven't already, and everyone should also be diligent about washing their hands to avoid spreading the contagious virus.
Those who are already sick can seek prescriptions for antiviral drugs like Tamiflu.
The flu can usually be treated at home with those medications, as well as rest and plenty of fluids. But it causes severe breathing complications in some people and those who are young, old or have underlying medical conditions are particularly at risk.
There have been at least 1,069 influenza and pneumonia related deaths in Kansas and 1,196 in Missouri so far this season.
This year's flu season started early and it's been the worst since the 2009-2010 pandemic caused by the swine flu, a new form of the virus.
This year's epidemic has been caused by more garden variety forms, but the dominant strain, influenza A H3N2, has proven more resistant to the vaccine than others.
U.S. Food and Drug Administrator Scott Gottlieb said Monday that his agency is trying to figure out why the vaccine is only preventing about 25 percent of cases caused by that strain this year and how to improve that rate in the future.
"There are a number of theories on why this season’s vaccines produced reduced effectiveness against H3N2," Gottlieb said. "We’re taking steps to investigate each of these potential causes, rule out possible reasons for the variation in effectiveness and improve vaccine efficacy against H3N2."
The influenza A H3N2 strain was most prevalent early in the flu season, but Titus said other strains that are more susceptible to the vaccine are starting to make up a higher proportion of cases as the season goes on.