CDC: Nation's flu epidemic is getting worse

TThe Centers for Disease Control has announced that the nation's flu epidemic is getting worse. And that includes California. Patients are showing up to emergency rooms across the country, but this new surge in cases is also giving doctors a new way to see the sick.

According to the latest numbers from the CDC, the flu, which has been making millions of Americans miserable for weeks, is getting worse.

"It's been horrible," said flu patient Sarah Mason.

Twenty-nine states, up from 22 last week, are now experiencing high levels of flu activity. And this year's strain is more dangerous than it's been in years.

"The strain that is out there this year, something called H3N2, in the past has been linked to bad flu years, more hospitalizations, and more deaths," said ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser.

Twenty-nine children have died from the flu across the country.

Sixty-eight percent of the tested flu virus samples have been resistant to this year's flu vaccine.

The outbreak is creating long emergency room wait times across the country. Some doctors are treating patients by webcam.

"I can tell that they're not in any acute distress over the webcam, I can tell that they are breathing well, basically treat them based on what they tell us, which is very similar to what I do in practice," said Physician Assistant Jennifer McClendon

Even though the flu vaccine this year is only is less effective this year, it's still recommended that everyone get a flu shot.

HOW BAD IS THIS FLU SEASON?

It's not clear yet. Experts are worried because the nasty bug that's making most people sick isn't included in this year's vaccine. Preliminary data on how well the vaccine is working is still weeks away. Among infectious diseases, flu is considered one of the nation's leading causes of death, killing roughly 24,000 a year, on average.

HOW UNUSUAL IS FLU THIS YEAR?

The different flu strain makes predictions more difficult. The current season hit hard in December - earlier than usual. But the last two flu seasons hit early, too. So far, flu hospitalization rates are similar to the harsh season two years ago, which was dominated by a similar flu virus. Especially this year, health officials this year are urging doctors to treat flu patients promptly with antiviral medications.

HAS FLU BECOME EPIDEMIC?

Yes, but that's not unusual. "It's safe to say we have a flu epidemic every year," Jhung said Monday. Epidemics occur when a virus spreads quickly and affects many people at the same time. According to one CDC definition, flu is epidemic when a certain percentage of deaths in a given week are due to flu and pneumonia. By that measure, flu epidemics occurred in nine of the last dozen winters, including this one. Flu-related deaths surpassed the epidemic threshold three weeks ago, then dropped below that level the next week. But other measures indicate flu still is epidemic.

IS IT TOO LATE TO GET A FLU SHOT?

CDC officials say no. Even if the flu season peaks soon, it will still be around for months. Despite the new flu strain, the vaccine has been well matched in roughly a third of the flu cases seen so far. And it is considered to be effective against some other flu viruses that could surge in the late winter or spring. About 40 percent of the public was vaccinated against flu as of November, which is about normal in recent years, said the CDC's Dr. Michael Jhung.

Click here to check out the CDC's Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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