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A Milder Bug This Season

April 02, 2001|Benedict Carey

Maybe it was all that clean living; maybe those cozy PJs we got for the holidays. But those of us who ducked the flu this season also benefited from the mildness of the virus itself.

That's right, after months of ominous warnings, along with widely publicized shortages of vaccine, the flu bug finally arrived--and left with a relative whimper, according to a report released recently by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This year's predominant strain of the virus wasn't as severe as in previous years, the agency said. At the peak of the 2000-2001 flu season, in late January, only about 4% of visits to doctors were due to influenza-like illnesses, compared with closer to 6% at the peak last year.

Despite the mantra "everyone's getting it, it's going around" repeated throughout any winter, the flu normally strikes 5% to 10% of the population in a given year. The miserable coughing, aches, exhaustion and fever can be life-threatening in many frail, elderly or chronically ill people, especially those with lung or heart conditions.

The official number of deaths attributable to flu each year--20,000 Americans--is an average and can depend on the severity of the virus strain, and the availability of vaccine. This year, the number of deaths attributable to influenza and pneumonia, a common complication of the virus, were well below epidemic levels every week since October, usually about the earliest the season hits.

In a year when production glitches delayed distribution of some 70 million doses of influenza vaccine to doctors and health clinics across the nation, the CDC report comes as very good news.

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