GREENVILLE, S.C. — Mark Coleman always makes sure he gets his flu shot. So a few weeks ago, he walked into a drug store, rolled up his sleeve and got poked by a needle.
“I’ve had the flu before and it was no fun,” said Coleman, 41, of Greenville, S.C., an electrical engineer “You feel sick as a dog.”
He noted that several people in his office have been out with the flu in the last few weeks, which he thought was unusual because this isn’t the traditional flu season.
“Usually, you see the flu in January and February. That’s why I made sure I got my shot,” he said.
Indeed, flu season has come weeks early – and has hit the Carolinas hard, health officials say. In fact, this is one of the worst flu seasons in a decade.
“Usually our flu season peaks in February and this one is peaking in December. It’s very active. There are a lot of people sick with flu,” N.C. Health Department epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies said.
She said the state doesn’t count individual cases of the flu. “We couldn’t possibly because there are too many people. But what we do is track visits to emergency departments and visits to primary care doctors and what percentage of those is for flu-like illness,” Davis said.
Right now, about eight percent of all doctors’ visits in North Carolina are for flu-like symptoms: widespread muscle aches, fatigue, high fever. Some medications can shorten the duration of the flu, such as Tamiflu. But they have to be taken when the first symptoms appear.
So far, 14 people across the state have died of the flu. Eleven of the people who died were over 65.
The flu season is peaking and should start tapering off in a few weeks. But health officials say they could see flu cases into March.
Meanwhile, doctors’ offices and emergency rooms are filled with people suffering from flu-like symptoms.
In South Carolina, there have been 13 flu-related deaths since Sept. 30, said Lindsey Evans, spokeswoman S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“We are categorizing it as widespread. We are seeing earlier outbreaks than in previous years and our numbers are pretty high,” Evans said.
Health officials say they aren’t sure why it’s hit earlier than usual. Other states are in the middle of outbreaks, including Alaska, New York and Mississippi.
North Carolina Health Department epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies says flu outbreaks are unpredictable, except that they come just about every year between September and March.
But this particular strain – H3N2 – is typically harder on older Americans than Influenza B or H1N1.
“We’re seeing a lot of older people getting sick with it, even people who have been vaccinated,” Davies said.
“Despite the fact that we have a lot of research done on the influenza virus itself, we don’t really completely understand what makes one flu virus strain worse than another,” she said. “What we know is that seasons where H3N2 is the predominant strain, older people get sicker and die more. But what precisely about that strain makes it worse, I can’t tell you.”
While vaccinations like the one Coleman received help ward off the flu, they’re not always 100 percent effective.
“Vaccinations are going to prevent the flu in the majority of people who get the shot, but not in every single person,” Davies said.
That’s particularly true with older Americans. “Only 65 to 70 percent of the older population who get the flu shot will actually develop good immunity, Davies said.
Still, health officials encourage older Americans to get the shot because if they get sick with the flu, it could spell trouble.
“Their odds of getting the flu are much less if you get the shot,” she said.