It's flu season, a fact you've probably noticed if you've experienced a bout of achy, feverish misery, or if you've seen the equally feverish news reports on the mounting death toll in North Texas, which reached 21 yesterday.
To put this all in context, we spoke with Dallas County Health Director Zach Thompson. Here are the key takeaways.
What's with all the deaths? Twenty-one deaths (17 in Dallas County) seems like a lot, but it's about on par with previous flu seasons, which annually claim around 25,000 lives nationwide. The difference this go-round -- and the reason you're seeing so many death-tallying news reports -- is that this is the first year Dallas County has tracked adult flu deaths.
This, Thompson says, helps local public health officials get a better understanding of the scope and severity of the outbreak.
"Adult flu cases and deaths are not a reportable disease according to the CDC -- only pediatric deaths," he says. "This year, Dallas County has been working with hospitals, and they're doing a great job providing us information about flu death."
Anything else that's different about this year? The strain. This winter has seen the return of H1N1, aka the swine flu virus that scared the hell out of everyone in 2009. Thompson says it's not significantly more or less virulent than the A and B strains that predominated last year, but it tends to attack young, healthy people rather than the young, elderly, and pregnant who are typically most vulnerable.
Compared with 2009, which the CDC classified as a pandemic, public health officials were relatively well prepared for the arrival of H1N1. Vaccines covering the predominant strain have been available since the beginning of flu season. Four years ago, it was well into flu season before the proper vaccine became available.
Should you get a vaccine? Yes, but you should have done so back in October. It takes up to two weeks after a flu shot for a person to build immunity to the virus, meaning you'll remain vulnerable to infection at a time when the flu is already widespread.
Still, you shouldn't be discouraged by anecdotes like this one about people who get a flu shot but still get the flu.
Nor should healthy people think they are exempt. During a vaccine shortage in 2004-05, the "CDC had made a recommendation that healthy people do not need to get the flu shot, so healthy people have basically opted out," Thompson says. "We lost the momentum of people getting flu shots."
Thompson says the vaccine is about 99.9 percent effective, and it's better to get a shot late than not to get one at all.
When will it be safe to emerge from the sterile hole you've crawled in? Officials are keeping a close eye on data as kids return to school and parents return to work after the holidays, but Thompson says the flu season is at its peak. He expects infections and deaths to begin tapering off, though he's not sure how quickly.
Last year, positive influenza tests had dropped significantly by mid-February, according to this CDC chart covering the multi-state region including Dallas.
If you start experiencing flu-like symptoms, what should you do? We didn't actually ask Thompson this question because we already knew the answer: STAY HOME.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.