Statistics the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released earlier this month show the 2012-13 U.S. flu season peaked earlier than usual and was moderately severe due to a potent strain of the virus and a possibly less effective vaccine for the elderly.
Alabama's 2012-13 flu season was also above average in severity. With vaccines readily available across the state each year, health officials will offer a stronger vaccine for elderly residents and encourage more residents get vaccinated to reduce the spread of the disease.
According to the CDC statistics, the previous flu season started in September, far earlier than flu season typically starts, which is around December or early January. The statistics show that the number of flu-related hospitalizations of adults 65 and older was the highest since 2005. Those residents are particularly susceptible to the flu. Hospitalizations for that age group were 191 per 100,000 of the population — two and a half times higher than the highest rate previously reported.
In an email Monday to The Star, Maria-Belen Moran, public affairs specialist for the CDC, wrote that a particular version of the flu, the H3N2 virus, predominated the last flu season and is typically associated with more severe illness and higher hospitalization rates. Moran wrote that overall vaccine effectiveness was about the same for all age groups except for residents 65 years old and older.
"This lower vaccine effectiveness against this virus could have contributed to higher hospitalizations and deaths," Moran said of the elderly population.
Phyllis Coughran, an immunization manager for the Alabama Department of Public Health, whose area includes Calhoun County, said the area will receive a better vaccine for the elderly for the upcoming flu season.
"We're going to be getting some of the high-dose vaccine for the elderly," Coughran said. "High-dose has more antigens in it that prevents the flu, so it works better for the elderly since they have weaker immune systems."
The statistics also indicate the peak percentage of hospital outpatient visits between 2012 and 2013 was 6.1 percent, one of the highest reported since 1997. For comparison, the peak percentage of visits for flu-related hospital visits during the last 15 seasons ranged from 2.4 percent between 2011 and 2012 to 7.7 percent during 2009.
Also during the 2012-2013 flu season, at least 149 children died in the United States, more than the typical range of 34 to 123 deaths per season, the statistics indicate.
Winkler Sims, director of the immunization division at the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Alabama's last flu season was more active than usual.
"There were more elevated levels of activity at certain times," Sims said. "We need to increase the number of vaccine doses administered."
According to the CDC, vaccination is the best way to prevent the spread of the flu.
Sims said the ADPH will begin its marketing campaign for flu vaccinations in a few months to encourage more residents, particularly the elderly, to get vaccinated.
"The number of people 65 and older did dip down some last year," Sims said. "We're looking for that trend to reverse itself."
Coughran said turnout for vaccinations for the previous flu season in the area was lower than expected, even though the vaccine was readily available at the Calhoun County Health Department, hospitals, various physicians’ clinics and certain businesses.
"We didn't use all the vaccine we had last year," Coughran said. "People just aren't that interested in getting the flu shot ... it just seems like a personal choice ... because there is better access than ever to get it."
Coughran said the newest batch of vaccine for the upcoming flu season will be available starting in September.
Dr. Michael Proctor, chief of emergency medicine at Regional Medical Center in Anniston, said the hospital's emergency room experienced a fairly average amount of patient visits due to the flu between 2012-2013. The difference was the number of visits peaked earlier than usual, Proctor said.
Still, Proctor said, as many residents as possible should vaccinate themselves for the upcoming flu season.
"I think anybody who spends time around a large group of people, such as teachers, should get vaccinated," Proctor said. "And I advise everybody at risk, particularly over the age of 65 and under the age of 12, get vaccinated. Those are the most at-risk age groups."
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.