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Flu Season Is Hitting Hard


This year's nasty flu season has become deadly. The virus has spread across the country and shows few signs of slowing down. It's even getting worse in a lot of places. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us. Rob, thanks so much for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, sure. Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: And just how bad is it now?

STEIN: It's pretty bad, Scott. The flu experts at the CDC had expected the flu season would have peaked by now. But that hasn't happened, unfortunately. And it looks like the flu may be starting to ebb in some parts of the country like in California. But it's still really intense in 49 states from coast to coast. You know, the CDC has this flu map that lights up red in the bad places. You look at it - it's blazing red coast to coast.

SIMON: How did it get this bad?

STEIN: Well, there are several reasons. The first one is that flu season started early. So that just gives the flu germs more time to make more people sick. But the big reason is the type of flu that's the dominant strain this year. It's known as H3N2. And historically, it's a really bad actor. It tends to make more people sick. When they get sick, they tend to get sicker. And therefore, they're more likely to end up in a hospital and even die from the flu.

SIMON: And it has struck that part of the population known as baby boomers even more than some others. Why is that?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, this year, like every year, the group that's getting hit the hardest is the elderly. They're the ones that are ending up in the hospital more, and they're dying more. But No. 2 this year is the baby boomers. They're right behind the elderly in terms of, you know, how frequently they're, again, ending up in the hospital. Health experts don't really know why. They think it might have something to do with the mix of viruses and that the baby boomers haven't built up enough immunity against them this year. So they're number two this year, pushing down young children to number three. But that said, it's important to note that at least 37 kids have already died this year from the flu.

SIMON: There has been so much emphasis in recent years on the importance of vaccines. Shouldn't they be helping?

STEIN: Yeah. And the vaccines probably are helping. But the - another evil thing about this H3N2 strain of the virus is that it tends to mutate when the vaccine's being produced, when it's being manufactured. And unfortunately, that happened again this year. And so it's kind of a mismatch for the vaccine. And it's not providing as much protection as the vaccine otherwise would. Now, that said, people still should get vaccinated because any protection is better than none. It does protect it better against the other strains. And if there's another wave of flu that happens this year, we still have lots of time for the vaccine to protect people.

SIMON: Is there something people can and should be doing now to protect themselves?

STEIN: Well, you know, in addition to getting their flu shots, you know, anybody who gets sick, they should stay home so they don't spread the flu around. You know, and there's a lot of commonsense things people can do, you know, things your mother is always telling you to do - wash your hands a lot. Don't touch your eyes and your nose and your mouth when you're out in public.

SIMON: NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: Oh, thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.