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Flu season full of surprises

Mild season shows signs of picking up

The U.S. flu season generally spans November through March. February usually sees the most activity.
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Flu Season
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

(CNN) -- Influenza appears to be on the rise in the United States, with the number of states reporting cases increasing during the past weeks, according to federal officials.

Although numbers show this flu season has been mild so far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its latest report that 27 states have widespread activity, compared to the reported 8 states a month before. Sixteen states report regional activity.

Widespread activity is defined by outbreaks in at least half the regions of a state, while regional means the flu has not yet reached that half mark.

In the CDC report on the week ending February 5, about 4.6 percent of patients who visited a doctor or clinic did so for flu-like illnesses, above the 2.5 percent average.

The flu season generally peaks in February. On average, flu kills about 36,000 people in the United States each year, according to the CDC.

"Flu's unpredictable. And I can't tell you yet if we peaked or not, but flu is out there," CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding told CNN's "House Call with Dr. Sanjay Gupta."

"There are some states that are having now that kind of activity that we didn't see in October, November, December, which tells us what we already know -- that the season is not over," said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health. "Certainly, the early part of the season was relatively light, much to our great advantage in light of the [vaccine] shortage."

Shortage into surplus

Just last fall, a shortage of flu vaccine left some at high risk for the flu waiting in lines for hours for their vaccines and many people unable to get a shot at all.

At the time, the CDC asked everyone to save available vaccines for those in the high-risk groups -- such as the elderly, babies and people with chronic health conditions. But the government says many of those who fell in those categories didn't even try to get a vaccine, because they didn't think there would be any available.

So now instead of a vaccine shortage, there's an abundance in some areas, a fact that has at least 30 states now offering the vaccine to anyone who wants it and other states easing restrictions, according to the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

"Lots of people are at risk. It's not too late to get vaccinated," Gerberding said. "And we really want people to keep looking for vaccine, to contact the providers."

Even when given late in the season, a flu shot provides some protection, Fauci says.

"You get vaccinated [and] within a couple of weeks you have good immunity. Within four weeks, you have excellent immunity," he said. "So it's certainly not too late to get vaccinated."

Because flu changes from season to season, leftover flu vaccines can't be saved for next year. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to pick the flu strains to be included in the 2005-2006 vaccine next week.

Bird flu 'worrisome'

While the United States has experienced a mild flu season so far, some countries in Asia are seeing outbreaks of the bird flu, or avian flu. In Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, there have been 42 deaths in the 55 cases reported to the World Health Organization this year.

In December, the WHO warned that bird flu could trigger an international pandemic that could kill as many as 7 million people. First recognized in humans in 1997, the virus can jump from birds to humans -- although that's rare.

"We're watching the situation with the avian flu very carefully, taking the steps that need to be taken now to help prepare and, most importantly, detect the transfer of that virus into people," Gerberding said. "But it is a very worrisome situation."

Mobile lifestyles could spread the disease quickly, Gerberding explained.

"We have much more migration of people, much more connection between people in one community and another," she said. "And the opportunity for this to spread overnight to the globe is something we learned with SARS. And we have to take that very seriously."

CNN's Christy Feig contributed to this report.

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