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Bad flu season ahead?

January 7, 2009 | 12:47 pm

Flu season is just getting underway in the United States, and it's too early to predict whether the season will shape up to be mild or severe. But the verdict in Britain is in, and it's bad.

The United Kingdom is having its worst flu season since 1999-2000, according to a story in the Daily Mail. The culprit is an H3N2 flu strain known as A/Brisbane/10/2007. As usually is the case with flu, the elderly are most at risk for life-threatening complications. But even large numbers of young and middle-aged adults are falling ill, in part, doctors say, because they are the least likely to have gotten a "jab," or a flu shot.

Trends over the last 30 years show that when an H3N2 strain circulates, the influenza season tends to be more severe, according to Dr. Carolyn Bridges of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Those are the years that you're more likely to see higher numbers of severe illnesses and deaths," she said in a telephone interview.

The good news is that the Brisbane strain is one of three strains targeted by this year's flu vaccine, in the United States as well as in Britain.

It's not too late to get a flu shot, Bridges said. It takes about two weeks after a shot for the body to develop antibodies, but flu season doesn't usually peak until February.

Unlike in previous years, there is an ample supply of vaccine this year. And unlike last year, the vaccine appears to be a good match for both of the influenza A strains circulating, the H3N2 and an H1N1 strain. This American Lung Assn. website can help you locate a clinic giving flu shots.

A Consumer Reports telephone survey last fall of 2,011 adults found that only 52% planned to get a flu shot. Among the excuses: Nearly half said they don't  get sick; 67% said it was better to build up natural immunity; and 5% said they'd rather get sick than go to work. A particularly bad flu season could change their minds.

-- Mary Engel