Seniors Bear Brunt of This Flu Season

THURSDAY, March 5, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- As the flu season continues to wind down, it's increasingly clear that older Americans have been hit particularly hard, federal health officials reported Thursday.

Not only did record numbers of seniors wind up in the hospital due to the flu, but "this age group also accounts for the majority of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza," researchers wrote in the March 6 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those 65 and older were hospitalized with the flu at five times the rate of all other age groups, accounting for 60 percent of hospitalizations and approximately 79 percent of deaths from the flu or pneumonia, the report found.

As of Feb. 21, hospitalization rates for seniors were the highest -- at 258 per 100,000 people -- since the CDC began compiling such statistics in 2005. By comparison, that rate was 46 per 100,000 for those younger than 5 years old, and 15 per 100,000 for those 18 to 49, the report showed.

This year's flu has also hit the young hard, the agency said, with 92 children dying from complications of flu by Feb. 21. For context, the CDC noted that in an average year, child deaths from flu vary from as few as 30 to as many as 170 or more.

Seniors may have been vulnerable to flu this season because the predominant strain -- H3N2 -- tends to be especially harmful in that age group, Dr. Michael Jhung, a medical officer with the influenza division at the CDC, told HealthDay.

According to Jhung, another reason for the record number of elderly hospitalizations may be that this year's vaccine was not well matched to this year's flu strains, showing only 19 percent effectiveness as of Feb. 21.

"We are seeing more serious illness in elderly folks this year, even more so than in 2012-2013," he said. "That happens every time we have an H3N2 year, and this year happens to be the worst we've seen."

On a more positive note, Jhung said the flu season has peaked, and although several more weeks of flu activity are expected, the season appears to continue to wind down.

Ways to treat and prevent flu from spreading include early treatment with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza, and washing hands frequently and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Early treatment with antiviral drugs is especially important for children 2 years and under and adults 65 and older, Jhung said. Others for whom these drugs are essential are people with diabetes, heart disease or breathing problems, he said.

More information

There's more on influenza at the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

SOURCES: March 6, 2015, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Michael Jhung, M.D., medical officer, Influenza Division, CDC

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