Early Flu Season See Half the Country With High to Moderate Flu Activity

Flu season has come early this year, thanks to a strain of the virus not typically seen this time of year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday. According to figures released by the agency on Friday, more than 1.7 million flu illnesses, 16,000 hospitalizations, and 910 flu-related deaths in the United States have already occurred.

According to the experts at the CDC, the last flu season to begin this early was in 2003-2004, with cases in the South spreading broadly, meaning flu season could peak far earlier than normal. Another surprise for health officials is the strain of the flu, a version that is typically found much later in the year, in March or April. The virus circulating isn't as dangerous as some strains that go around for the elderly, however, the illness can be difficult for children and those under 50.

"Nationally, influenza B/Victoria viruses are the most commonly reported influenza viruses among children age 0-4 years (46% of reported viruses) and 5-24 years (60% of reported viruses)," the CDC states on its website. 

As of Nov. 30, flu activity has been elevated in the United States for four weeks, with more cases expected as winter continues, the CDC said. The illnesses have been mostly found in the Southern United States, with high flu activity recorded in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. The new numbers show the flu widespread in 16 states, though, not as intense in each. Health officials say they expect elevated flu activity to continue for the next few weeks, with the peak coming as soon as December. However, there's a 25% chance the flu season could peak as late as February, the CDC said.

Last year's flu season turned out to be one of the longest in more than ten years, with around 49,000 flu-related deaths and 590,000 hospitalizations, preliminary estimates show. Health officials say the best way to protect yourself from getting sick is to get the flu vaccine, which can reduce the risk of the potentially dangerous complications due to the illness. While the two previous flu vaccines were shown to have performed poorly against the predominant virus, it's still too early to tell how effective this year's vaccine is performing.

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention