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Severe flu season could cost the US nearly $11 billion, experts say

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
March 23, 2018, 8:14:50 AM EDT

The official start of spring this week marks the symbolic transition to warmer weather. However, the idea of warmer weather may inadvertently mislead many to believe it is the end of the flu season.

While the first day of spring has passed, flu viruses continue to circulate within the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).

The flu has been particularly severe this season. Most people with influenza are being infected with the H3N2 influenza virus, according to CDC Contractor Richard Benson.

“In seasons where H3N2 is the main cause of flu, we see more visits to the doctor, hospitalizations and deaths, especially among children, people older than 65 and those with certain chronic health conditions,” Benson said.

Flu season 2017-18

Henry Beverly, 73, battles the flu while tended to by nurse Kathleen Burks at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga., Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The number of people visiting a doctor, emergency room or clinic for influenzalike illnesses this season has seen its highest level of activity recorded since the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, according to CDC Contractor Richard Benson.

“In a very bad flu season, the CDC estimates that influenza results in as many as 35 million illnesses, about 700,000 hospitalizations and as many as 56,000 deaths in the United States,” Benson said.

However, the exact number of people that have the flu is unknown because not every case is reported, according to Benson.

“Flu costs the U.S. more than $10 billion each year in hospitalizations, sick days and lost productivity. Some are predicting that the flu will cost nearly $1 billion more than last year,” WebMD Senior Medical Director Dr. Hansa Bhargava said.

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Flu activity peaked at the beginning of February, during the week ending Feb. 3.

“Although flu activity has declined significantly for the fifth consecutive week, flu activity is expected to continue for a few more weeks,” Benson said.

Pediatric deaths are also still increasing slightly, with an additional nine deaths reported for the week ending March 10. That brings the season’s total to 128. In the last severe flu season, during 2014-2015, 148 children died.

Warmer weather may help to decrease the spread of the flu. While cold air by itself does not cause the flu, there is a positive relationship between cold air and the rise of the flu.

“While scientists aren’t sure about the impact of cold weather on flu transmission, research suggests that cold air may make it harder for our nasal passages and our immune systems to fight off the virus,” Bhargava said.

Spending more time indoors in close quarters during the winter months can make it easier for the virus to spread.

“The only good news is there is enough flu vaccine available, and you can – and should – get it if you haven’t already. Even if it doesn’t prevent the flu, it can reduce symptoms and complications should you get sick,” Bhargava said.

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