Why is the Flu Season More Severe This Winter?

BANGOR, ME (WABI) - Like clockwork,each winter we deal with the flu.

But this year is of particular concern...both in the number of cases of influenza as well as its severity.

Joy Hollowell tells why this season is so different.

The latest report from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention show close to 1,200 people testing positive for the flu so far this season. Of those, 21 cases resulted in death.

"The strain that's circulating this year has a much higher rate of complications," says Dr. Felicity Homsted, Chief Pharmacy Officer for Penobscot Community Health Care. "It's much more severe than we typically see so we're seeing more hospitalizations."

The vaccine typically covers three to four strains of the flu.

"People are pretty familiar with H1N1. We saw that rise a few years ago," explains Homsted. "This year we can think of it as a similar idea, The strain that we're seeing most predominantly is H3N2."

Homsted says this year's flu vaccine matches 97% of that H3 strain.

"Which still sounds really good," she says, "but where it is a much more severe form of the flu in that strain, people are seeing much more effect by it."

The number of people getting the flu vaccine is down this year, according to state reports. Homsted believes that a report in the New England Journal of Medicine last November may be partly to blame.

"It predicted that this year's vaccine would not be a good match," she says. Homsted acknowledges that flu vaccines in the last two to three years have proven to be poor matches to the strain that season. Nonetheless, she points out, even if a vaccine is not a perfect match, it still boosts your immune system to the strains.

Those with the flu typically have a fever, muscle aches and pains.

"You're going to feel like you've had everything knocked out of you," Homsted says with a smile.

And this year, the symptoms are lasting longer, up to one week and even more in some cases.

If you think you have the flu, Homsted says get to a doctor right away. They can prescribe Tamiflu within the first 24 to 48 hours to help reduce the severity of the illness. That's also the case for people exposed to patients with influenza.

Homsted says the majority of flu outbreaks this year are showing up in long term care facilities so those folks are of particular concern for exposure.

The best defense, she says, is still to wash you hands.