It knocked me flat. Then it hit me with chills so violent only piles of blankets could calm them. It left me too weak to do anything but watch brainless TV all weekend, wondering how I’d become such a wimp that some garden-variety virus could lay me so low.
Then, Monday morning, my weekend misery suddenly all made sense.
“Believe it or not, flu season still hasn’t peaked,” said the email from Flu Near You, which crowdsources flu surveillance. “In most years, cases of the flu virus peak in February or early March, but as of this week, flu is still spreading and the height of it is not in sight yet, according to epidemiologists at the CDC.”
Aha. Nice to know that I wasn’t hit by sudden sloth. Though I got no lab diagnosis, chances are I was felled by the common virus that scares me most, far more than Ebola or Zika: the flu. Here on the Eastern Seaboard, we’d been largely spared our annual flu woes this year — until now. And nationwide, as of last week, flu reports were spiking in more than half of states, amounting to what’s looking like an unusually — though not uniquely — late peak to the flu season.
“This has been a really late influenza season,” Dr. Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the influenza division of the CDC, said in an interview. “If you go back and look at the last 33 seasons, only five of those have peaked during March, and none of them have peaked in April. We don’t yet know when influenza activity is going to peak this year. Data that we posted last week for the week ending March 12 showed influenza activity still increasing.”
Here in Massachusetts, case numbers are shooting up, as you can see on the graph below:
“We are definitely seeing an increase in flu activity, in the last week or two in particular,” says Dr. Larry Madoff, director of epidemiology and immunization at the state Department of Public Health. “We’re characterizing it as ‘moderate’ and ‘widespread’ in Massachusetts right now.”
And it does not yet seem to be abating.
“It still seems to be on the way up,” Dr. Madoff says. “Anecdotally, we’re hearing this from providers, from people in the community, and we’re certainly getting this from our sentinel networks and laboratory testing that flu is on the way up, so we don’t know when it will peak.”
On the positive side, he notes, it has been a milder flu season than usual until now. That may be in part because the predominant strain of the virus this year is H1N1 — remember the pandemic of 2009? — and the population has had time to build up some immunity to it, Dr. Madoff says.
Also, this year’s vaccine is a good match for the flu strains that are circulating, and is estimated as 60 percent effective.
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that if you were rejoicing that you made it through winter flu-free, not so fast: You still have to weather spring.
What might be causing this late flu peak? After an oddly warm winter here in Massachusetts, followed by an oddly warm then suddenly cold March, might climate be at work?
The short answer is that flu dynamics are highly complex and nobody really knows, but Dr. Madoff says the year’s weather is a possible factor.
“The weather has an impact and climate has an impact,” he says. “We know that flu is transmitted better during periods of cold weather and we certainly see that with the seasonality of flu every year. And it’s been shown that flu is better transmitted with dry cold air, and that certainly could have an impact, and it has been a mild unusual winter here.” Continue reading