RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is nasty out there, folks. And I'm not talking about winter weather. The flu, horrible colds, stomach bugs - we are a sick bunch of people right now. Millions are getting sick from these ailments, which, of course, leads to missing days of work or school, doctor's visits. But for some people, this can be extremely serious. They are ending up in the hospital or even, in the worst cases, dying. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now to explain what is happening this flu season. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So health officials had predicted that this winter season was going to be really bad when it comes to the flu. Just how widespread is this right now?
STEIN: Yeah. Rachel, unfortunately the worst fears seem to be coming true. The flu season started early, and it's hitting hard, and people are getting the flu all over the country. It's pretty much everywhere in the United States at this point. And it's really intense in dozens of states. You know, some places are being hit harder than others right now, like the South, where it started the earliest, in California, where some hospitals say their ERs are being overrun by flu cases.
The CDC says that the proportion of people that are running to the doctor with the flu is already as high as it gets in a really bad flu season. Like, the last time we had a really bad flu season was 2014, and we're already at that point with that - with the proportion of people going to their doctor for the flu.
MARTIN: All right. So the big question - why? I mean, why is this so bad right now?
STEIN: Yeah. So one reason is it did start early. But another big reason is that the kind of flu that's out there is a strain that's known as H3N2. And it's a notoriously nasty kind of flu. It tends to hit people harder than other strains, especially the people who are most vulnerable to the flu like young children and the elderly.
MARTIN: So what about the flu vaccine, though? We're all told we're supposed to get the flu vaccine. And then it's going to prevent us from getting the flu.
STEIN: Yeah. So the vaccine does help. But another bad thing about the H3N2 strain is that it tends to mutate when the vaccine's being made, and that's exactly what happened this year. There's big questions about how well the vaccine works. In Australia, for example, the vaccine was pretty much a dud. Australia has its flu season before ours and usually kind of predicts what's going to happen in this country. And in Australia, it only was about 10 percent effective.
MARTIN: So what's to prevent people from saying, hey, those odds just aren't good enough for me to take the time to get the shot? I'm just not going to do it.
STEIN: Yeah, well, health officials are pretty clear on saying you should definitely still get the vaccine. There is plenty of vaccine out there. And there are several reasons for that. The vaccine could end up working better in this country than it did in Australia because there could be a different mix of viruses that circulate. Any protection is better than no protection at all.
And it could turn out that other strains of the flu end up being more common in this country, and the vaccine does work much better against those. And if you need another reason, getting vaccinated doesn't just protect you. It protects people around you, like, you know, the people who are most vulnerable, like your kids or your elderly parents.
MARTIN: So are we near the end of this now? I mean, how long is the flu season?
STEIN: Yeah, that's a good question. And we don't really know. There are some indications that we may be peaking already with the flu in this country. But the big question is, does that mean it's going to end early, and we're going end up with just a typical flu season? Or will it continue on for weeks and weeks and weeks and end up being the really bad season that everybody's really worried about? We just don't know yet. It's too soon to tell.
MARTIN: All right. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks so much, Rob.
STEIN: Oh, sure, Rachel.
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