How Bad is Flu Season This Year? – Here’s What We Know So Far

According to a nationally representative sample of US prescriptions, fills for Tamiflu (oseltamivir), used to treat the flu, are more than three times lower than they were this time last year.

Tamiflu is often prescribed as soon as patients show signs of the flu and is a good measure for flu rates. By January 13 of this year, 0.29% of all prescriptions were for Tamiflu, compared to 1.22% during the same time last year. While it’s not clear if flu season has reached its peak just yet, the current trend indicates that this year’s flu season will also be milder than both the 2016-2017 and 2015-2016 flu seasons, which peaked in February and March, respectively.

This data closely resembles trends from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking another indicator for flu rates, outpatient flu visits.

According to the CDC, this year’s flu levels reached a peak at the beginning of January, with 9.1 per 100,00 people hospitalized due to the flu. Last year at this point, hospitalizations were three fold as high at a rate of 30.5 per 100,000 people.

Researchers posit that the mild flu season is likely a result of a less dangerous strain of the influenza virus, and a more effective vaccine, though it is likely that we have yet to see this year’s peak.

What flu treatments are available?

At present, Tamiflu is the most popular treatment for the flu. If taken within the first 48 hours of getting the flu, Tamiflu can help to block the actions of influenza on your body and shorten the duration of the viral infection. You can also take Tamiflu for up to 6 weeks to prevent the flu.  

Besides Tamiflu, there are three other influenza treatments available: Xofluza, Relenza and Rapivab. Xofluza is the newest of the four, and some research has shown that it can shorten the duration of the flu more than Tamiflu can. Relenza is an oral inhaler, and just like Tamiflu, shortens the duration of the flu by around 1.3 days. Rapivab, lastly, is similar to other treatments, but is a medication that must be administered by a healthcare practitioner intravenously (by IV), and costs over $1000 per treatment.

Read here for a full rundown on these four antivirals.

Co-contributors: Jeroen van Meijgaard, PhD and Clement B. Feyt, MPH

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