Experts Warn a Second Wave of the Flu Is Here & Hitting Kids the Hardest

Person receives flu shot
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As the death toll continues to rise from the coronavirus, causing panic for international travelers and those within Wuhan, China, the world remains on edge about just how far it could actually spread. But at the same time, US health officials are urgently reminding the public not to take their eyes off another deadly virus that currently poses a far greater threat to Americans: the common flu. Despite being halfway through the 2020 flu season, a second wave of the flu is hitting the US, experts say -- and kids will be hit the hardest.

  • The CDC announced Friday that the rate of child deaths and hospitalizations this year has been the highest on record in the last decade.

    It's estimated that 26 million Americans have contracted the flu so far since the season began back in October, resulting in about 250,000 flu-related hospitalizations and around 14,000 deaths.

    Ninety-two of those deaths have been children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted.

    The virus also got its earliest start in more than 15 years, CNBC reported, with cases popping up even earlier than October.

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  • According to health officials, the second wave of flu is expected to keep going for weeks.

    “We have not yet peaked for influenza. We are still on our way up,” Dr. David Weber, a University of North Carolina infectious-diseases specialist, recently told TIME.

    If there's one spot of good news, it may be this: For some reason, this year's flu has not been hitting the elderly as hard as it usually does. That means that although we've seen an uptick in flu rates, there have not been as many deaths or hospitalizations overall, because patients are generally younger and less medically vulnerable.

  • Still, the fact that children are bearing the brunt of this year's flu season is concerning, to say the least.

    “Schools were having a really hard time this year," Karen Martin, a state epidemiologist for Minnesota, said during the CDC's briefing last week. "We’re having calls from school saying that they have sometimes up to a quarter or even a third of their students out sick."

    Health experts are especially worried about all the attention being taken up by the coronavirus, which has made many Americans forget just how deadly -- and common -- influenza truly is. Whereas the US now has 15 confirmed cases of the coronavirus across seven states (with no deaths), the CDC estimated that the flu affects between 9 million to 45 million Americans each year. Even though not all of these cases are severe, on average they lead to 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths.

    Just let those numbers sink in for a minute.

  • Some of the focus on the coronavirus could be beneficial, though.

    Lynnette Brammer of the CDC noted that as more patients begin to exhibit flu-like symptoms, they could seek medical treatment sooner than they might have before, thanks to the widespread fear of contracting the coronavirus. 

    In a lot of ways, news of the coronavirus has heightened awareness of viral threats, leading some to avoid travel if it's unnecessary or otherwise plan accordingly -- wiping down shared surfaces with antibacterial wipes, wearing face masks during air travel, and more. This could have a noteworthy impact on the number of deaths and hospitalizations we see by the end of the flu season, but only time will tell if this is truly the case.

    “People being a little worried and seeking care doesn’t especially worry me, because that’s the point," Brammer told TIME. "We’re looking for broader spread within the community."

  • As a result, the CDC is urging Americans once more to receive their flu shot if they haven't already.

    Considering flu season runs through April, it's certainly not too late to get it now -- despite what you may have thought -- and it could protect you even more against the second wave, as it continues to ramp up.

    Of course, it's important to note that the flu shot cannot fully guarantee you won't contract the virus this year, and that health officials have admitted it's not a "perfect match" for all strains of the flu (of which there are many). 

    "The influenza vaccine protects against various strains, three or four, depending on which vaccine you receive," Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, explained during the CDC's briefing last week.

  • But the second wave is seeing a rise in A/H1N1 cases, Schaffner added -- and the good news is "the vaccine is exactly on target against this strain."

    The federal health agency estimated that the vaccine usually reduces the risk of influenza illness by 40 to 60% among the overall population and helps lessen the symptoms for those who do get it. For some Americans, that could ultimately mean the difference between life and death.