Behind the 2018 flu season: the CDC, false information, and your child

As a general pediatrician who has been through 22 flu seasons with my patients, it is my opinion that the media and the CDC present information about the flu in a way that is deceptive and harmful. Below are my reasons for thinking this way.

Panic

 

Panic causes people to think irrationally and do dangerous things. Yelling “fire” in a movie theater causes people to panic and rush for the door, harming each other in the stampede and clogging the exit so that nobody gets out. It’s a bad idea.
 

This year, there is a flu panic. The prognosis of every news story is dire. Most of the visits and phone calls I get are from parents who think that their child is going to die from the flu. They are desperate to get a flu test and get started on Tamiflu right away. The other day I got a call from a parent at 5 AM because his 8-year-old son vomited. He wanted me to call in Tamiflu then and there. He was scared because of what the news says, not because his child was very ill.
 

Panic clogs the system. When there are three times more visits and phone calls than we are equipped to handle, bad things happen -- rushing through patients and being surrounded by stressed people leads to misdiagnoses, errors, and an inability to properly tend to the non-flu patients who may be iller than most of the stampeding flu patients.

 

False Information

 

Flu Peak

When CDC director Anne Schuchat said in a CNN article that "our latest tracking data indicate that flu activity is still high and widespread across most of the nation and increasing overall,"  she gave the impression that the worst is yet to come. Later in the same article, a CDC spokeswoman said that “there is still likely many more weeks to go.” Statistically, they aren’t far off the mark, but they neglect to put this information in context. Look at the graph below from  “flu view” on the CDC website:

 

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Every year flu peaks, and then decreases. At the time of Dr. Schuchat’s statements, we were clearly on the downward slope. I have followed these curves every year and the pattern is generally very predictable. To the CDC, “flu season” lasts 20 or more weeks - from November to March. But for us, “flu season” is 3 weeks of intense numbers of illnesses that we all see. Our “flu season” is nearly over. A more accurate statement would be “we have come through the hardest part of the flu season, and according to what we know about flu, there is every reason to expect a dramatic drop in cases over the next 2 weeks.” 
 

Pediatric Deaths

Most articles say something like, “This strain of flu is particularly deadly. 53 children have died this year.” But look at this graph, also from "Flu View":

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The number of pediatric deaths associated with flu this year is significantly lower than previous years. Of course, there still is some time left, but the overall number looks like it will play out to be less or the same as every other year. Every death is a tragedy, but unfortunately, they do happen every year. I see no reason to imply that this years’ flu is deadlier to children than any other year. 

 

“Go see your doctor right away.” 


This isn’t necessarily the best idea. Most of the time, the only thing your doctor can do is prescribe Tamiflu, which is by no means an instant cure. It mayshorten the course of illness by 20 hours for some people if started early, but it has side effects, it is in limited supply, and it tastes horrible. Not to mention that an overcrowded, panicked doctor’s office is a very good place to catch and/or spread germs. A person may very well be better off staying home and treating themselves as they already know how: rest, fluids, and fever meds if needed. 

 

“The most patient visits for flu-related illness since the swine flu of 2009.” 


First, this is “flu-related illness”, not flu. If a child has a temperature over 100.4, a sore throat, or a cough, they are considered to have a flu-related illness. Because of the mass flu panic, many more people go to the doctor for colds for which they usually would have stayed home. Counting the number of these office visits doesn’t mean anything regarding the severity of the flu. It is beyond debate that the reason so many people with “flu-related illness” in America this year are seeking out medical evaluation is the panic caused by CDC spokespeople and the media. In past years, we stayed home and recovered without all the drama, and therefore weren’t counted towards flu-related illnesses. 

 

“The best thing you can do to prevent the flu is get your flu vaccine.”

 

If you don’t expose yourself to the germs, you won’t catch them. If the flu this year is as bad as implied, the best preventative measure is to stay home for 3 weeks. Certainly, don’t go to daycare, school, or other crowded places.  Obviously, this isn’t a practical scenario for most people, but it is the best way to prevent flu. From what I’ve seen, this year’s vaccine doesn’t match the circulating strain well, and getting it at this late date isn’t likely to do much.

 

What I say to my patients and to you.

Flu happens every year, and I don’t see any difference with it this year as compared to the past 22 years. In fact, there are about the same or fewer pediatric deaths this year than the average.

If/when your child does contract the flu, you can expect up to 5 days of high fever, coughing, runny nose, and fussiness. When the fever is down, your child should be reasonably happy, drinking, and have good skin color. If your child is excessively irritable, doesn’t seem to be drinking well, has difficulty breathing in any way, or has a bad color, call me (or your pediatrician) right away.  Also, if your child is under 2 years old, has asthma, or is weak in some way, call me. Despite what the CDC and the news say, your child will be OK and there is no reason to think he/she is going to die.