Last updated: February 19. 2013 8:26PM - 377 Views

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Flu season in the U.S. is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade – and it could be a bad one.

Health officials on Monday said suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.

It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news is that the nation seems fairly well prepared, Frieden said. More than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, and the vaccine formulated for this year is well-matched to the strains of the virus seen so far, CDC officials said.

Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn't happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations are also rising earlier than usual, and there have already been two deaths in children.

Dr. Lisa Esolen, medical director of infectious control for Geisinger Health System, said Geisinger doctors have seen about a half dozen cases of flu locally, with the first one emerging in September.

Hospitals and urgent care centers in northern Alabama have been bustling.

Parts of Georgia have seen a boom in traffic, too. It's not clear why the flu is showing up so early, or how long it will stay.

My advice is: Get the vaccine now, said Dr. James Steinberg, an Emory University infectious diseases specialist in Atlanta.

Esolen concurs. She said it takes about two weeks to build up immunity to the flu after a vaccination, so if you wait until the flu hits your community, it might be too late, she said.

The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths. The dominant type of flu back then was the same one seen this year.

One key difference between then and now: In 2003-04, the vaccine was poorly matched to the predominant flu strain. Also, there's more vaccine now, and vaccination rates have risen for the general public and for key groups such as pregnant women and health care workers.

An estimated 112 million Americans have been vaccinated so far, the CDC said. Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older.

On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.

Esolen said about 90 percent of the Geisinger staff has been vaccinated, and those employees who are not will be required to wear mouth and nose masks at work.

Esolen said the notion that getting a flu shot can make one sick or give one the flu is a myth we really try to debunk.

When you get the vaccine, it's a viral protein, not the virus itself, and it tricks the body into thinking you have the flu, so the body will make protective antibodies. It's very rare, but it can give you a low grade fever. Most of the time, people just get a little soreness at the site and that's it. It's very safe, Esolen said.

Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

Times Leader staff writer Steve Mocarsky contributed to this report.

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