(USA TODAY) - This year's flu season is starting earlier and hitting harder than it has in almost a decade, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
"This is at least a month earlier than we would generally see the beginning of the uptick in cases," said CDC director Thomas Frieden.
The flu strains circulating in the United States this year, especially the N3N2 strain, tend to cause more severe disease as well, he said. The good news is that this year's flu vaccine is a 90% match for the circulating strains. "So we're particularly encouraging people who haven't been vaccinated to do it," he said.
For the week ending Nov. 24, about 2.2% of all doctors visits in the United States were for flu-like illnesses. In some of the hardest-hit states in the South as many as 4% of doctors visits were for flu-like illnesses, according to CDC's FluView survey.
"Elevated" levels of flu-like illnesses have been found in five of 10 regions of the USA.
Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas experienced what were considered high flu numbers, the CDC said. Much of the Midwest also was seeing elevated numbers. Nationally, the percentage of respiratory tests found to be positive for the flu virus during the week rose to 15.2% -- relatively elevated for this time of year, the CDC said.
The percentage of deaths from pneumonia and flu was 6.3% for the week, below what the CDC considers an epidemic rate of 6.7%. No new pediatric flu deaths were reported, and only two have been reported thus far this season.
The prime flu season runs from October through April.
So far 112 million Americans have been vaccinated, and it's expected that 135 million doses of vaccine will be produced total this year, so there shouldn't be any vaccine shortages, said Frieden.
To keep you and others from getting the flu this year, Frieden offers this advice:
•Wash your hands
•Cover your cough
•Stay home if you're sick