The flu epidemic has hit a milestone that hasn’t happened in over a decade

  • Doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say they're seeing "widespread" instances of the flu in 49 states.
  • It's the first time that many states have been slammed by the flu at the same time in over a decade.
  • Some evidence suggests that the worst of the flu season is upon us, and that the flu shot will be better at protecting more late-season cases this year.

Flu season arrived early in the US this year, and it's been deadly. To make matters worse, the current vaccine isn't working very well against one of the most common strains of the virus.

"This year's influenza season is proving particularly difficult" CDC Deputy Director Anne Schuchat said during a briefing on Tuesday.

Perhaps most the most unusual thing about this year's flu, experts say, is that it's hitting almost everyone at the same time.

The flu is "widespread" in 49 states right now, according to the CDC (Hawaii is the only state without that distinction). Doctors at the CDC say they haven't seen that kind of across-the-board flu circulation in the last 13 years of tracking the flu, or maybe ever.

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Threats the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have responded to
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Threats the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have responded to
Barbara Smith, a registered nurse with Mount Sinai Medical Health Systems, St. Luke's and Roosevelt Hospitals in New York, demonstrates putting on personal protective equipment (PPE) during an Ebola educational session for healthcare workers at the Jacob Javits Convention center in New York, October 21, 2014. Thousands of healthcare workers representing dozens of clinical and non-clinical positions attended the session that featured experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other area infection control experts to provide training and information on caring for potential Ebola patients. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH DISASTER)
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FILE PHOTO: A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) scientist measures the amount of H7N9 avian flu virus which was grown and harvested in an unnamed CDC laboratory in 2013. James Gathany/CDC/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Colonies of E. coli bacteria grown on a Hektoen enteric (HE) agar plate are seen in a microscopic image courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). U.S. health officials on May 26, 2016 reported the first case in the country of a patient with E. coli bacteria carrying the mcr-1 gene, an infection resistant to all known antibiotics. CDC/Handout via REUTERS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY
The Aeromedical Biological Containment System (ABCS) is shown in this undated handout photo provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, August 1, 2014. The ABCS is a portable, tent-like device installed in a modified Gulfstream III (G-III) aircraft, providing a means to perform emergency movement of exposed or contagious CDC personnel from the field, or site of exposure, to a facility that can provide appropriate medical care without risk to passengers or air crew, according to the CDC. The ABCS was designed and built by the Department of Defense (DoD), Phoenix Air Group (PAG), and CDC. REUTERS/CDC/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: HEALTH DISASTER SOCIETY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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A quick and deadly spread

The prevalence of the flu has led to shortages of anti-viral drugs that doctors prescribe in the first 48 hours of illness to make the bug shorter and milder. Pharmacies in San Francisco and Atlanta have reportedly been running out of the drugs, and Roche Holding AG, the maker of one of the most popular anti-virals, called Tamiflu, told Reuters that the company is having trouble getting shipments of the liquid version for kids to distributors and wholesalers on schedule.

At least 21 children have died from the flu so far this season, and Dan Jernigan, who directs the CDC's influenza division says it's likely that the actual number of kids who've been killed across the country could be double what's been reported.

On Tuesday, NBC reported that a fourth-grader from Connecticut died suddenly due to complications from the flu while away at a hockey event. It is not known whether the boy had been vaccinated, but a 2017 study showed that getting a shot can significantly reduce a child's likelihood of dying from the flu.

In California alone, 43 people under the age of 65 have died, most of whom were un-vaccinated adults, the California Department of Health told Business Insider. One victim in the state was a 40-year-old marathon-running mother whose flu led to pneumonia and sepsis, according to CBS.

In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey declared a public health emergency last week, saying hospitals and health care workers were "overwhelmed" with sick patients, and "taxed to such an extent that care of patients may now no longer be provided in the traditional, normal, and customary manner."

You can see how quickly the flu has spread across the US in this dramatic week-by-week map:

flu gif oct-dec 2017Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Part of the problem this season has been the prevalence of a deadly strain of influenza 'A' called H3N2. So far, nearly eight of every 10 lab-confirmed flu cases have been that aggressive strain, which is also being called the "Aussie flu" since Australia's flu season preceded the US' and was unusually severe as well.

H3N2 is not well served by vaccines because it rapidly evolves and is difficult to grow successfully in eggs, which is how most flu shots get made.

But this season's deadly flu is not without precedent. Severe flu seasons can kill upwards of 56,000 people every year in the US, and lead to up to $10.4 billion in direct medical costs. The flu reaches "epidemic" levels at some point every year — officially, that's when the number of people killed by the flu passes 6.8% of all US deaths (as happened earlier this month).

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The Best Drinks to Fight the Flu
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The Best Drinks to Fight the Flu

Water

This shouldn't be a surprise: the ultimate clear liquid, water is the truest drink to keep you hydrated. Don't like the taste? Add a sugar-free flavor packet, like Crystal Light, to your glass to encourage more guzzling.
Credit: iStockphoto/ Thinkstock

Ice Pops and Ice Cubes

How do you think ice cubes became the 25th most searched recipe in America, after all? Ice pops, or ice cubes if your freezer just happens to be void of summer’s best treat, are two of the best defenses against dehydration. WebMD advises to look for ice pops made with 100 percent fruit juices to get a 2-in-1 fight against the flu – hydration, plus vitamins.

Credit: Jupiter Images

Black Tea

Mother Nature Network notes one Harvard study that shows black tea as the ultimate immunity booster. Drinking five cups of black tea per day for two weeks nearly quadrupled a person’s immunity system – so if tea isn’t a part of your diet already, you germaphobes, you should get on it. Thanks to black tea’s abundance of theanine, flavonoids (antioxidant-like compounds), catechins (compounds that fight free radicals in the body), it’s been proven to fight off the flu.

Credit: Flickr/ HinduCindu

Ginger Tea

Ginger may as well be called a superfood, seeing as how much it can keep the flu at bay. Most people reach for a ginger ale when tummy troubles come about, and we can see why – it’s been a part of Chinese herbal medicine for more than 2,000 years to relieve digestion problems and nausea. Plus, ginger can help detox the body by inducing sweating (not the most fun symptom of the flu) to get rid of the body’s toxins. And ginger’s analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties relieve aches and pains that come with the flu. Convinced? Fortunately, ginger tea is simple to make: the University of Maryland Medical Center advises adding 2 tablespoons of ground ginger or ginger root to a cup of boiling water. (We particularly like this honey, lemon, and ginger flu-fighting concoction from Simple Green Smoothies, too.)

Credit: Flickr/ Ali Fayre

Chicken Broth

Chicken broth may be your best remedy against a cold and the flu. Vitamins and protein? Check. Hydration power? Check. Anti-inflammatory properties? Check. Congestion-fighting properties? Check. The most popular study on chicken broth, from the University of Nebraska, showed that chicken soup helped reduce upper respiratory cold symptoms and helped build up the nose’s protective cilia, hair-like substances in the nose that prevent contagions – like that pesky flu bug – from entering the body. While you may need a few days to feel well enough to eat a hearty chicken soup, the University of Nebraska provides the ultimate chicken noodle soup recipe. A scientifically-backed recipe to feel better? Not even your mom’s homemade soup-made-with-love can top that.

Credit: Flickr/ Muffet
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The worst may be over

Some new evidence suggests the H3N2 strain of the virus may be peaking this month.

Flu watchers at the CDC say they're starting to see more influenza 'B' popping up in their tests, and those 'B' viruses are better served by this year's vaccine. (In one study, the flu shot worked against 54% of influenza B cases, while its effectiveness against H3N2 strains was closer to 33%.)

Despite years of modeling, the fate of the flu season is still near impossible for experts to predict. The virus moves quickly, changes rapidly, and mutates drastically from year to year. That's why a universal flu vaccine that could protect patients for life has so far been impossible for drugmakers to produce.

As CDC deputy science director Phoebe Thorpe put it, "if you've seen one flu season... you've seen one flu season."

Officials say influenza will continue to circulate in the US for weeks to come, however, which means it's not too late to get the shot.

NOW WATCH: This is why you have to get a new flu shot every year

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SEE ALSO: This year's deadly flu season is reaching its peak — here's how to tell if you're contagious

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