The "swine flu" virus that caused a global pandemic four years ago is back, and state health officials across the country are seeing a troubling rise in flu deaths among children, young people, and middle-aged adults, federal officials are reporting.
So far this year, the flu virus — known scientifically as H1N1 — has caused only a fraction of the deaths that it did during the 2009-2010 flu season. But it is the most common flu virus doctors are seeing across the country, the influenza death rate is dramatically higher than last year, and the virus has been killing people at epidemic levels since mid-January, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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"Flu activity is likely to continue for several more weeks," the CDC said in its weekly influenza update.
Officials noted it's still not too late to get a flu shot because the season typically stretches into late March or April. The CDC also urged those most at risk for flu complications — including young children (under 5), pregnant women, adults 65 and older, and individuals with chronic conditions such as asthma — to be vaccinated and take care to treat any flu symptoms aggressively.
"Anyone aged 6 months and older who has not gotten a flu vaccine yet this season should get one now, especially if they are in a part of the country where activity began more recently. All flu vaccines are designed to protect against 2009 H1N1 viruses which are the most common flu viruses reported so far this season," CDC officials advised.
"It's also important that people at high risk for serious flu complications who develop flu-like symptoms or anyone with severe illness consult a healthcare provider to see whether influenza anti-viral might be needed."
According to the federal health agency, the number of people visiting doctors and hospitals for flu-like symptoms is declining in most regions of the country, but some states are continuing to see increases in flu activity as well as high numbers of cases. While the flu usually strikes the very old and the very young hardest, swine flu tends to hit younger people most severely. In fact, more than half the people hospitalized for influenza have been under 65 years of age, the agency reported.
"These severe flu outcomes are a reminder that flu can be a very serious disease for anyone, including young, previously healthy adults," CDC spokesman Jason McDonald told the Washington Post
H1N1 — known as the "swine flu" because it originated in pigs before spreading to humans — has shown up in isolated patients in recent years, but it is circulating widely this season.
According to the CDC, the outbreak has killed at least 243 people in California under 65 years of age. Last year, there were 26 deaths by this time. During the 2011-to-2012 season there were only nine deaths and in the 2009- 2010 season, there were 527 deaths.
Health departments in Virginia and Maryland also show that the flu is widespread in the region, and the District of Columbia has seen a surge in flu cases over the past month, with 90 percent of the cases being H1N1.
North Carolina is also reporting a record year for flu deaths, with 64 to date (five more than all of last year, and 55 more than in 2012).
A recent Duke University Medical Center study found that people hospitalized for the flu between Nov. 1 and Jan. 8 were much younger — with an average age of 28.5 years — and more likely to have serious complications than those who had H1N1 in the past.
Scientists are working on a universal flu vaccine to provide long-term protection and leave people less vulnerable to year-to-year changes in flu strains, but such a shot is still years away from becoming a reality.
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