The U.S. has been hit with a particularly aggressive early flu season this year with widespread reports of the illness across the country, hospitalizing 2,257 people and leaving 18 children dead before the end of 2012.
And health officials say the numbers haven’t even peaked yet.
‘I think we’re still accelerating,’ Tom Skinner, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman, told reporters.
The latest figures from the CDC show 29 states and New York City reporting high levels of flu activity, up from 16 states and New York City just one week prior.
Overall, 41 states reported cases.
‘It’s about five weeks ahead of the average flu season,’ said Lyn Finelli, lead of the surveillance and response team that monitors influenza for the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. ‘We haven’t seen such an early season since 2003 to 2004.’
During that flu season, Joe Lastinger’s daughter Emily, 3, died only five days after coming down with the flu in late January.
‘That was the first really bad season for children in a while,’ said Lastinger, 40. ‘For whatever reason that’s not well understood, it affected her and it killed her.’
In that season, illnesses peaked in early to mid-December, with flu-related pneumonia and deaths peaking in early January.
That season was considered a ‘moderately severe’ season for flu, and ended in mid-February.
It’s still too early to tell how bad this year’s flu season will get.
While the CDC is waiting for more time to pass before classifying the season, Google Flu Trends has already listed it as ‘intense’ by monitoring flu activity around the world based on internet search terms.
And roughly 4 per cent of users on Flu Near You, a real-time tracking tool gaining about 100 new participants per week, say they’re experiencing symptoms.
‘That’s huge,’ John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston, told NBC News. ‘Last year, we never got near this.’
Brownstein is one of the founders of Flu Near You, a project, coordinated by Children’s Hospital Boston, the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the American Public Health Association.
The project has been a great tool for generating immediate data about the ongoing flu season.
‘It’s what we call ‘nowcasting,” Brownstein said. ‘It’s a more up-to-date view.’
CDC data can be as much as two weeks behind real-time reports.