Health officials are sounding the alarm about high rates of influenza-like illness in Alabama, an increase that is hitting earlier than expected.
“This is the highest influenza activity we have seen this early in the season since the 2009 influenza A/H1N1 pandemic,” said Dr. Wes Stubblefield, a pediatrician and district medical officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health ( ADPH).
Last week, 10.34% of outpatient visits in Alabama were related to influenza-like illness (ILI), which includes patients presenting with symptoms of fever, cough, or sore throat. The state typically doesn’t get close to these numbers until the end of the year.
While it’s not clear how many of these people have tested positive for the flu, lab samples from across the state show influenza is present in all public health districts. The outbreak is concentrated among young people ages 5 to 24 and is affecting pediatric outpatient clinics and children’s hospitals.
Children’s of Alabama has seen an “increase in admissions” in recent weeks related to influenza and related complications.
“These included those patients who required ventilation and some so severe that they required ECMO (heart-lung bypass) support,” said Dr. Michele Kong, professor of pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Critical Care Research Program at Children’s. “We urge families to take the flu virus seriously and make sure their children and teens are protected. ”
Children’s of Alabama officials did not release data on how many hospitalized patients are being treated for flu-like illness.
Statewide, 257 people were hospitalized with influenza on Tuesday, with 43 people in Intensive Care Units. Alabama Hospital Association President Dr. Don Williamson said these numbers are not out of line with a normal flu season, but they are peaking early.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of an early flu season in a october reporthighlighting the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and two seasons with minimal influenza activity.
“Reduced population immunity, particularly among young children who may never have been exposed to the flu or have never been vaccinated, could lead to a strong return of the flu,” officials said in the report. “The CDC is particularly concerned about drops in flu vaccine coverage over the past two years among higher-risk groups, including children and pregnant people.”
Even as flu activity increases across the country, Alabama’s numbers stand out. It is one of three states with “very high” influenza-like illness activity, according to the CDC.
UAB epidemiologist Dr. Rachael Lee said it’s not clear what’s causing the spike in Alabama.
“I think in the south we have been quite open with our masking each other and we saw cases of RSV (Respiratory syncytial virus) and other respiratory viruses in the summer and last year,” Lee said. “So it seems a little strange that it’s because they’re taking off the masks now, especially in the Southeast.”
Lee said she thinks one of the reasons for the outbreak is that people go to work and school while sick. And because this flu season is unexpectedly early, people have had less time to get vaccinated and build immunity.
Lee said it’s too early to tell how well this year’s vaccine is working against circulating influenza strains. He said flu shots are generally about 40% effective at preventing illness, but they generally help reduce the severity of symptoms and prevent hospitalization for those who do get sick.
Alabama health officials continue to encourage residents to get vaccinated, which are available to anyone older than six months. Those who get sick should drink fluids, rest, and stay home.
Richard Banks contributed to this story.