With the flu reaching epidemic levels around Christmas, health officials are estimating that the death toll has reached 27 in Illinois and nearly 370 people have been hospitalized with flu-related illnesses, state health officials are reporting.
The Illinois Department of Public Health is not expecting a decrease any time soon with more reported cases from previous weeks coming in. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 47 states are now experiencing an elevated level of influenza activity. Officials said the season has started earlier and the cases are more severe than in recent years.
The number of flu cases declined last week in Chicago, but experts say conditions may continue for the next several weeks. Curtis Allen, a spokesperson for the CDC, said Chicago experienced an early outbreak of the influenza virus so the high activity level might decrease over the next 10-12 weeks. But he said the most accurate prediction the CDC could make about the flu season, is that it is unpredictable.
"Unfortunately, we really don't know much about the type of flu season we're having until after its over," Allen said. "We're learning a lot, but the most educational part is when the season is over."
On Friday the CDC reported that 7.3 percent of deaths last week were caused by pneumonia and the flu, just above the epidemic status of 7.2 percent. While the numbers are high compared to previous years, some medical experts say there are misconceptions about the flu virus that are causing a great amount of unnecessary concern.
Dr. David Zich, internal medicine and emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said the flu season has been worse than normal, but preparing for the unexpected is part of emergency medicine.
The majority of flu cases reported to the CDC have been influenza A (H3N2), followed by influenza B viruses, and a small number of the 2009 H1N1 - more commonly known as the swine flu. Zich said when influenza A viruses circulated before, flu seasons were more severe, but the majority of the public has no reason to greatly fear the flu.
"This is not a super bug," he said. "It may be a little bit more potent, but it's not something to be very worried about. The majority of healthy people should be over it within five to seven days."
As of last Wednesday, Northwestern Memorial Hospital was no longer on emergency-room bypass. Even though many hospitals have been swamped with flu patients, Zich said the hospital, not an urgent care center, is the best place to go if you get the flu and have other significant health problems. Hospitals will have the equipment to test for pneumonia and other respiratory complications, he said.
Dr. Paul Heidel, medical director for the Ottawa County Health Department in Michigan, previously worked on a national level with flu-related issues for the U.S. Air Force. He said the most common symptoms of the flu this year have been sore throat, headache, body aches, high fever and a cough from inflammation in the respiratory track. For those worried about getting ill, Heidel said it is not too late to get the vaccine, which is on average 62 percent effective.
"That doesn't mean that you won't get the flu though," he said. "The body takes two weeks to build up antibodies so you're not fully protected right away and there are other strains that it doesn't cover."
Heidel still recommended the shot despite these factors because it can prevent more severe cases and help the average person recover faster if they are infected. He also said getting the vaccine can reduce the risk of passing on the illness to someone more likely to have further complications.