Are large numbers of people dying?
No, although it may appear so right now. The deaths of a few apparently healthy people — notably those of a 21-year-old fitness buff in Latrobe, Pa., a mother of three in San Jose, Calif., and a 10-year-old hockey player in New Canaan, Conn. — have been widely publicized, and some areas, like San Diego, have reported record numbers of deaths. But it is still too early to say how high mortality will be nationally. It can take weeks to confirm all flu-related deaths. As of now, the mortality rate for victims under age 18, a bellwether C.D.C. category, is well below that seen in the 2014-15 season.
Credit Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
How many usually die?
Even in a mild year, flu kills about 12,000 Americans, the C.D.C. estimates. In a bad year, it kills up to 56,000. Most of those deaths are among the elderly, but flu also kills middle-aged adults with underlying problems like heart or lung disease, diabetes, immune suppression or obesity. It is also dangerous for pregnant women, children under age 5 and children with asthma. And, every season, flu and its complications, including pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, kill some apparently healthy people.
Does this year’s flu shot work?
Its H3N2 component is a bad match for the circulating strain. Australia just had a severe flu season with many deaths, and the vaccine there had the same mismatch. Experts estimated that the vaccine prevented infection only 10 percent of the time. The shot’s efficacy here has not yet been calculated because the virus is still spreading, but experts expect it to be about 30 percent. In Australia, vaccination failed partially because it is urged for only the most vulnerable, while in the United States millions of healthy people are vaccinated.
Is it worth getting the flu shot anyway?
Experts say yes, because even when the shot does not prevent you from catching the flu, it may save you from dying of it. And while getting it in October is best, because it takes about two weeks to build immunity, it is still not too late, because the virus persists all winter and into spring.
Are antiviral flu medicines working?
Yes. Of all the samples tested so far by the C.D.C., only 1 percent were resistant to oseltamivir, zanamivir, and peramivir, the ingredients in Tamiflu, Relenza and Rapivab. But to be effective, these medicines should be taken as early as possible after symptoms appear. (Rapivab is given intravenously, usually in hospitals.)