The 2012-2013 season is shaping up to be one of the worst flu seasons in a while, officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday.
There have been a larger number of suspected flu cases than usual in five Southern states, and this year's strain may be more virulent. Already, two children have died of the illness.
"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said.
A similar flu virus struck during the 2003-2004 season, killing more than 48,000 people in one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years. This year's vaccination appears to be better matched to the virus, officials said.
More than one-third of United States residents have already been vaccinated against the influenza virus, the CDC said. Hundreds of Lehigh Valley residents got free flu shots at Lehigh Valley Hospital's drive-through flu shot clinics last month at Dorney Park and Coca-Cola Park.
Health officials hope to increase that percentage this week, which is National Influenza Vaccination Week.
Influenza—more commonly known as simply "the flu"—is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. It spreads via infected people coughing, sneezing or talking, though people can also get infected by touching something with the flu virus on it before touching their mouth, eyes or nose.
“Flu season typically peaks in February and can last as late as May,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service and director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a news release.
“We are encouraging people who have not yet been vaccinated to get vaccinated now.”
More than 200,000 people each year are hospitalized due to complications from the flu, according to the CDC.
Symptoms of the flu include muscle or body aches, headaches, cough, sore throat, fatigue, fever or chills, and vomiting and diarrhea (the latter two are more common in kids). The flu can also worsen chronic medical conditions or cause death.
People are contagious a day before symptoms appear and up to a week after getting sick.
The CDC recommends getting annual vaccines as early as possible, as it takes a few weeks to reach full immunity.