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Flu Season Arrives Early, and Could Be Bad

Comstock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The annual flu season has arrived and it’s “the earliest regular flu season we have had in nearly a decade,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said Monday during a press teleconference.

Five states have already reported enough cases to officially mark the beginning of the flu season.  These states are Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.  Missouri and Georgia are also well on their way to meeting the critical threshold number of cases.   It is expected that as the season progresses, the infection will continue to spread across the nation.

Frieden said that during a typical season, flu rates start to rise in early January, but this year “we’re seeing the beginning of the uptick start at least a month before we’d generally see it.”

This may largely be due to the predominant flu subtype being passed around: H3N2, which is known to cause more severe illness.  It was also the predominant subtype in 2003-2004, the last time the flu season arrived this early, when “we saw more severe illness in children and the elderly.”   Frieden said that each year the flu virus takes thousands of lives, and this year “it looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season.”

The good news is that Frieden said it appears that this year’s strains are “a great match” for this year’s vaccine. Thus far, Frieden said, of the strains that doctors have submitted to government health officials, 90 percent have been very well matched with the flu vaccine.

“We did about as well as we could have done to put the right three strains of flu into the flu vaccine that is on the market,” Frieden said.

Influenza vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself from the flu.  Melinda Wharton, Acting Director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, estimates that 112 million Americans have been vaccinated thus far.  Overall vaccination rates are on the rise, especially in children, pregnant women, and healthcare workers.  

But more needs to be done, said Frieden.  Only 37 percent of individuals over 6 months of age are vaccinated.  The CDC is encouraging people to go get vaccinated now before the rates of infection rise further.

“When you get together with your friends and families, make sure you spread good cheer and give presents, but make sure you don’t spread the flu,” said Frieden.  

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio