Normally, this is the peak period for the flu in the United States. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case this year. The number of states reporting widespread cases of the flu mysteriously plunged from 49 at the end of October to zero at the beginning of the January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the beginning of March, most states are only reporting sporadic cases of the flu.
It seems only a few short weeks ago when medical authorities declared a flu pandemic, the first in more than 40 years, and warned that because of the simultaneous existence of both the H1N1 and regular seasonal flu strains, the 2009-10 flu season could wind up as one of the worst on record.
So what happened?
Only time will tell, said Dr. Michael Koller, associate professor at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Maywood. Flu pandemics are highly unpredictable and no one can say for certain when one will start, when it will end and how severe it may be. A particular flu strain can go “poof” and disappear, or it could mutate and ramp up with a deadly vengeance, as has happened in the past.
“This flu season isn’t like any other I’ve ever lived through,” Koller said. “We haven’t had a flu pandemic since 1968 and all the rules go out the window with a pandemic. We don’t know what to expect.”
In a typical year, the regular flu season begins in November and reaches its peak in February, Koller said, although cases can occur as late as May. Older people, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions such as respiratory illnesses and heart disease are at an increased risk for serious complications from the regular flu strain.
This flu season, however, began far earlier, in April, with the appearance of H1N1, also known as “swine flu,” and continued to cause illness throughout the summer, which normally doesn’t happen with the regular seasonal flu, Koller said. In addition, illness from the H1N1 strain tended to be more severe than the seasonal flu among people younger than 65.
Although we might have dodged the worst this year’s flu season, caution is still in order, Koller said. Infections are still expected to occur for weeks, possibly resulting in another wave of widespread illness.