(Bloomberg) -- Children returning to school after the winter holidays appear to be sharing more than just their new toys. They are driving influenza infections to levels not seen since the swine flu pandemic of 2009, public health officials said. By the time this flu season is over, experts said, more than 50,000 Americans will be dead.
While the year’s flu activity is actually starting to cool in some regions, it remains high across most of the country and is gaining in other areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mortality rates, which trail infections, spiked sharply, with seven additional children dying from the infection over the past week, said CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald. Thus far, 37 children have died as a resistant strain of the virus dominates the season. The government said that number may double before its over.
“This rapid increase in cases that we have been seeing is after the winter holidays, and while it’s among all ages, it’s higher in children,” said Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “It looks like a big part of the later January activity is flu transmission from kids returning to school.”
There are several unique, worrisome aspects to this season’s outbreak: It’s hitting everywhere at once; it’s continuing rather than peaking quickly; and it’s affecting a broader range of older Americans than in the past. The entire continental U.S. reported widespread flu every week for the past three weeks, Jernigan said.
“We often see different parts of the country light up at different times, but for the past three weeks the entire country has been experiencing lots of flu, all at the same time,” he said, adding: “We have several weeks to go.”
The season is shaping up to be similar to the epidemic of late 2014 and early 2015, which entailed 710,000 hospitalizations and 56,000 deaths, according to the CDC. The agency is expecting similar numbers this year, Jernigan said.
Activity levels vary in different states, however. Hospitalizations in California are running at four times the level seen in 2014 and 2015, while Minnesota’s rate is double. In New York, the numbers are starting to surpass the national average.
An additional, unexpected finding is the flu’s impact on middle-aged Americans, who typically withstand it pretty well. While hospitalization rates are predictably highest among the elderly, younger baby boomers aged 50 to 65 are in second place, Jernigan said. This is especially bad news for them, given a new study linking the flu to increased risk of heart attacks.
“Baby boomers have higher rates than their grandchildren right now,” he said. “Those folks are ones who really would benefit from having a higher vaccination coverage.” And not only for their own benefit, or even their families. These Americans are at the peak of their careers with many in managerial roles, Jernigan explained. When they’re home sick in bed, it can negatively impact their businesses.
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