The ‘No Flu-Freakout Zone’

Yes…it’s flu season, yes…it’s worse this year than previous years and yes…it even made it to epidemic status (which means it’s in higher numbers than expected). Yet watching the news in the past few days made me feel like this has turned into a zombie apocalypse rather than a cyclical event (albeit with higher infections than we’re used to). Am I the only one that thinks the media is doing a tremendous job at sensationalizing and over-hyping this? It may be a ratings-booster, but is it really worth freaking out over?

I’m a numbers guy and I think numbers give us an unbiased view into what is actually going on. Take a look at the maximum percent of positive influenza tests reported to CDC from 1997 – 2013. We can make a few simple assertions, namely:

  1. The percentage of positive cases IS higher than past years (duh).
  2. The highest max percentage was observed in the 2008 – 2009 flu season.
  3. We have a general upward trend, meaning that the average percentage of positive influenza results is going up (although yes, I know…there’s no trend line….if anyone can show me how to do a trendline in Tableau, shoot me a message).
[tableau server=”” workbook=”MaxYearlyInfluenzaPositiveTestsReportedtoCDC” view=”Dashboard1″ tabs=”no” toolbar=”no” revert=”” refresh=”yes” linktarget=”” width=”600px” height=”700px”][/tableau]

Since influenza is a seasonal infection, it wouldn’t be appropriate to simply show the maximum percentage of positive tests without actually looking at WHEN this maximum occured. Looking at 16 years would make things a little confusing, so let’s take a look at the last 5 (so 2008 – 2013). Keeping in mind that the flu season begins in October and ends in May, with a general peak in February, here we go:

Alright. Now we know what the ‘worst case scenarios’ are and when they happened. Since these numbers only show cases of influenza, and not deaths (and deaths would be more telling of the gravity of an infection), let’s take a look at the death tolls from influenza in years past. A quick skim of the CDC FluView Report lists 2,961 specimens positive for influenza, with a total of 18 pediatric deaths due to this flu season. Additionally, the media keeps mentioning the number 50,000 as an unusual number of deaths due to pneumonia and influenza in one season. So how does this compare to previous years? Well, according to an American Lung Association report, over 65,000 individuals died of pneumonia & influenza in both 2002 and 2003 respectively. Moreover, in all years between 1999 – 2006, none of the numbers fell below 50,000, with the lowest being 56,326 in 2006 (Table 1). So is this flu season the zombie apocalypse that the media portrays it to be, or is it just a rough patch that we’ll most certainly surpass? Your call to make.

Now that we have some historical data under our belts, and we’ve calmed down a bit, it’s time to focus on what we CAN do to avoid getting the flu.

  • First we should not that pretty much everyone is at risk for developing  the flu. Of course, certain individuals are at higher risk for developing moderate to serious illness, as well as flu-related complications. These individuals are:

    Additionally, people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, heart disease and blood disorders are also at higher risk for developing complications. For a full list and comprehensive information, check out the CDC Flu page

  • By far the best protection against acquiring a flu infection is to get the flu vaccine. It comes in both a shot and nasal-spray. It protects against three influenza viruses (H1N1 influenza A, H3N2 influenza A and influenza B).It’s important to know that the flu vaccine does not work right away! It takes up to 2 weeks for the antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu. Additionally, you can still get seasonal flu even though you got a vaccine this year. The reason behind is because of the wide variety of flu viruses. Each year flu manufacturers make an educated guess on which strains they think will develop this year. If you happen to get one which the vaccine doesn’t have influence over, you may just need to go through the motions. Additionally, data shows that in the 2010 – 2011 influenza season, vaccine effectiveness was about 60% for all age groups.Looking to get vaccinated? Use the search tool below to find a flu vaccine near you!

    You should always be aware of your surroundings, wash your hands after touching common areas, avoiding “direct sneezes” (for those who don’t cover their mouths, shame on you!), and giving masks to those family members and friends that have already gotten the flu! Bulking up on oranges and zinc wouldn’t hurt either.

To finish up this already content-heavy post, I’ll say this: if you haven’t already, you may want to stop believing the fear-inducing reporting that some of our TV friends are doing and start looking up information on your own! Never let someone else make a decision for you. Here are some great resources you can use RIGHT NOW to find information about the flu season, treatments, spread and more!

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