Spike in flu cases in DC, health officials say

- Did you get your flu shot yet? This season is shaping up to be a particularly bad one and it comes as we mark the 100th anniversary of one of the world's most catastrophic disease outbreaks – the 1918 influenza pandemic.

The D.C. Department of Health said it has seen a sharp increase of reported cases over the past week. It is also similar to what is being seen across the country and doctors fear it is only a matter of time before we could possibly see a super-flu.

“It is not too late for residents, especially young children, pregnant women, elderly individuals and those with chronic health conditions, to get the flu shot to reduce their risk for getting the virus,” said Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt, director of the city’s Department of Health. “As the flu season is likely to last a few more months, getting vaccinated now can still work as a protective measure for many people. Additionally, if you get the flu shot and still get sick, the vaccination will work to lessen symptoms and severity of the flu.”

This year, we have had colder weather earlier and doctors say the flu virus survives better in lower temperatures. Not to mention, the holiday season also causes lots of close contact and travel.

Most hospitalized patients have been 65 or older, and according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 20 children have died of complications from the flu.

A young boy from Michigan may soon be added to that list. Twelve-year-old Michael Messenger died last week two days after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. It is unclear if the virus killed him and autopsy results are pending.

Doctors estimate this season's vaccine is only about 30 to 40 percent effective against what has been called the H3N2 strain.

"It's being called the dreaded strain particularly because the vaccine doesn’t work as well, so people have more severe symptoms that,” said family physician Dr. Shilpi Agarwal.

The virus often beats our best defenses because it constantly mutates. The 1918 super-flu outbreak killed tens of millions people as it swept the world.

There is no way to predict what strain could trigger another pandemic.

"We have to do better and by better, we mean a universal flu vaccine,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “A vaccine that is going to protect you against essentially all, or most, strains of flu.”

NIH has designated creating a universal flu vaccine a top priority.  

“Because of the way that the vaccine has developed, which is through the egg method, some say that this is kind of an antiquated method and using more updated technology could help us to get us a more specific vaccine,” said Dr. Agarwal. “If we were to have a larger, more universal vaccine, it would cover several different viruses and hopefully because it is more specific, it could us protect you for several years at a time.”

The CDC recommends washing your hands frequently and disinfecting your home and office to keep the virus from spreading. Also, get the flu shot. Even if you end up getting the flu, your symptoms will be lessened and it will not last as long. By getting the vaccine, you are also protecting others around you.

If you do get sick, stay home. If you do head out, make sure it is just to go see the doctor. There are medications that can help, but you need to take them within the first two days.

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