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Flu remains a threat, with pediatric cases a key concern, CDC says

A pharmacist at West Hempstead Pharmacy prepares a

A pharmacist at West Hempstead Pharmacy prepares a flu vaccination on Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Influenza continues to be a major health threat across the nation as cases rise exponentially in 42 of the 50 states — including New York, federal health experts said Friday.

“This is a very difficult [flu] season,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a telephone briefing.

“The hospitalization rate is the highest we’ve seen, and we are not out of the woods yet,” she said, comparing the current figures to the 2009 flu pandemic.

Nationally, one in every 14 visits to a doctor or health clinic within recent weeks has been for influenza, the highest level since the 2009 pandemic, federal health data revealed.

Pediatric deaths remain a key health concern because they mark the severity of a flu season.

Schuchat, in the briefing from the Atlanta-based CDC, said 16 children died of flu-related illnesses nationwide last week, bringing the total number of pediatric deaths attributed to influenza to 53. One child has died in New York during the current flu season, which began in October.

“We’re seeing serious flu in children who have no secondary [medical] conditions,” added Schuchat, referring to otherwise healthy and robust children.

Parents should take special note when children seem to recover from a flu-like illness then suddenly become sick again, she said. That kind of cycle can be a harbinger of a secondary bacterial lung infection that may prove deadly if left untreated.

A spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Health could not say how many adults in New York have succumbed to influenza so far, because New York does not record influenza-related deaths in the adult population. Other states track flu differently, however, and have seen adult deaths soar during the current influenza crisis.

All strains of flu are in wide circulation, including B influenza strains, added Schuchat, who assumed her duties as acting CDC director on Wednesday after Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald’s abrupt resignation. The Trump administration appointee quit following reports that she owned tobacco-related stocks.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in an executive order last week, suspended state law that bars pharmacists from administering flu vaccines to children ages 2 to 18.

Cuomo’s order means more outlets now are available to administer pediatric flu vaccinations. Parents and guardians are encouraged to call pharmacies ahead of their visit to ensure they are ready to receive patients in that age group, state health officials said.

For children between the ages of 6 months and 24 months, parents still are encouraged to see their primary care provider.

On Long Island, the Suffolk County Department of Health is urging health care providers and local residents to be vigilant about flu-like symptoms.

All high-risk patients with suspected flu-like illnesses should be treated as soon as possible with an antiviral medication, said Dr. James Tomarken, Suffolk’s health commissioner.

High-risk individuals include people with chronic pulmonary diseases, diabetes, cancer and other conditions that compromise immunity.

“Ideally, treatment should be initiated within 48 hours,” Tomarken said. “However, antiviral treatment initiated later than 48 hours after illness onset can still be beneficial for some patients.”