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Deadliest flu in a decade: Lethal influenza outbreak ravages US

Published time: January 10, 2013 17:44
Edited time: January 10, 2013 21:44
AFP Photo / Senasa

AFP Photo / Senasa

The US is experiencing its deadliest flu outbreak in a decade, prompting the city of Boston to declare a public health emergency after the virus killed more than a dozen people and left hundreds struggling to fight off the illness.

From Florida to Maine, emergency rooms across the nation are flooded with patients experiencing symptoms of the flu. Last January, Boston had seen only 70 cases of influenza. This year, the numbers have reached 700, with at least 18 dead in Massachusetts – and the number of cases is still on the rise.

“In the last two weeks alone we’ve doubled our number,” Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, tells CBS News. “So, if we continue at this rate to see new cases, we’ll have an explosion of flu in the city of Boston. We really need to get ahead of it at this point in time.”

Most states haven’t seen an outbreak this bad since the swine flu plagued the US in 2009. But in some regions, the most recent influenza outbreak has already surpassed the H1N1 outbreak by creating a high number of sick and dying patients.

Nationwide, the number of flu cases has more than doubled in the past month, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared 44 states are experiencing a widespread influenza. Hospitals are overwhelmed with patients, with the Lehigh Valley Hospital in Pennsylvania seeing as many as 100 new patients a day that have flu-like symptoms.

Even south Florida has seen an unusually large number of cases, and the illness most recently killed a 6-year-old girl in Texas.

This year’s severe flu season has created a shortage of Tamiflu, which is used to treat symptoms of influenza. Roche Holding AG, the company that produces the drug, told wholesalers that there would be a delay in Tamiflu shipments. Across the nation, pharmacies have the liquid version of Tamiflu on backorder, prompting compounding pharmacies to start making their own versions of the drug.

But even the vaccines used to prevent further outbreaks are in low supply. Sanofi SA, which is the main flu vaccine provider in the US, announced Thursday that four out of six of its formulations of seasonal flu vaccines were sold out.

“We use Cardinal Health as our drug wholesaler and we have a secondary. Both of those are running low,” Andy Komuves, a pharmacist at the Dougherty’s Pharmacy in north Dallas, says to Fox News. “Supplies are spotty. Some of that is because there is a huge demand right now and of course when these types of things happen you always get a little bit of hoarding going on too.”

US lawmakers are encouraging the American public to stay home if they experience flu-like symptoms and to get the vaccine if they haven’t already. With the vaccine now in short supply, though, it will become increasingly difficult to take preventative measures against the deadly illness. With flu season lasting until March or early April, the death toll is likely to continue rising. To combat the epidemic, the city of Boston is providing free flu shots this weekend.

“You have to think about an anti-viral, especially if you’re elderly, a young child, a pregnant woman,” said ABC News Chief Medical Editor Dr. Besser. “They’re the people that are going to die from this. Tens of thousands of people die in a bad flu season. We’re not taking it serious enough.”