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Why Is This Flu Season So Deadly?

The 2018 flu season is particularly dangerous. Photo: FPG/Getty Images

While you might typically think of the flu as a mere annoyance (or a great excuse to skip work and binge old episodes of Gossip Girl all day long), this year’s flu season is actually quite dangerous. It seems like you can’t turn on the news or scroll through social media without reading about yet another tragic flu-related death, and, chances are, everyone you know has already been bed-ridden because of this year’s strain.

To figure out why the 2018 flu season is so deadly, the Cut spoke with Kristen Nordlund, press officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Uh … what exactly is going on with this year’s flu strain?
Each year, there are usually a few different strains of the flu virus circulating around. But in 2018, we’re seeing more of the Influenza A-H3N2 than any other strain, Nordlund said. And any year in which this is the dominant strain tends to be worse than usual — just like during the horrible 2014-15 season, which saw an estimated 34 million people come down with the flu. “We know in general those seasons tend to be more severe especially for older adults and young children,” Nordlund said.

What is it about this year that’s so particularly bad, though?
Given that the H3N2 strain has been dominant in previous years, you’re likely wondering why everyone’s in such a panic about this particular season. Well, according to Nordlund, it’s because of the timing of it all — and just how widespread the dang thing has been. “In previous seasons it tends to happen in different parts of the United States at different times,” she said. “This is one of the first years we’ve really seen that widespread activity is everywhere. Flu is really across the board in every state at the same time.”

Nordlund went on to explain that although each flu season is different, sometimes you don’t really see much activity until January. But this year, flu season started in November, meaning that it was happening right when everyone was being social over the holidays, potentially helping it spread. “The timing of it lined up with some of those large gatherings,” she added.

Yikes. So, how many people have actually died this year?
No one really knows! Nordlund told the Cut that there have already been 37 recorded influenza-related deaths in kids under the age of 18 so far this year. “That is higher than we saw at this time last year but somewhat comparable to the 2014-15 season,” she said. The CDC expert explained that it’s tough to track the precise number of how many people actually die from the flu each year — there are usually way more flu-associated deaths than actually end up listed on death certificates. So overall, the CDC estimates that anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000 people could die from the virus in any given year.

Oh, God. Well, when will this thing be over?
When exactly this year’s flu season will end is yet another thing no one really knows. Nordlund told the Cut in late January that we hadn’t seen the peak of this flu season yet (so its activity is not even starting to decline at this point), and we won’t know how many people have died from the flu until it’s actually over. “Flu activity overall tends to peter out as it gets warmer,” she told the Cut. “So we know because of how high activity is that it’s likely we’re going to see many more weeks of flu activity, but how many more — we don’t know.”

Greaaattt. Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?
Sure. This year’s flu may be horrible, but you still have time to get a flu shot, according to Nordlund. And of course, there’s also the basic preventive actions, like washing your hands, staying home if you’re sick, and covering your cough or sneezes. But just a warning: If you already got the flu this year, that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to not get it again before the season is over. “You can get the flu twice in one season because you can get a different strain,” Nordlund cautioned.

Why Is This Flu Season So Deadly?