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The Flu That’s Laying the Country Low Waited Nine Years to Strike

It's flu season again, but this year the bug going around isn't just your average illness

It’s flu season again, but this year the bug going around isn’t just your average illness. The New York Times reports:

The country is in the grip of three emerging flu or flulike epidemics: an early start to the annual flu season with an unusually aggressive virus, a surge in a new type of norovirus, and the worst whooping cough outbreak in 60 years. And these are all developing amid the normal winter highs for the many viruses that cause symptoms on the “colds and flu” spectrum.

And that Times article alone had lots of people getting flu shots, apparently.

Got my flu shot. Pharmacist said 45 ppl came in today because of NYT story. Who says media has no impact?

— Lindsay Beyerstein (@Beyerstein) January 10, 2013

That’s because the story includes stories like this one from doctors:

“Yesterday, I saw a construction worker, a big strong guy in his Carhartts who looked like he could fall off a roof without noticing it,” said Dr. Beth Zeeman, an emergency room doctor for MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, Mass., just outside Boston. “He was in a fetal position with fever and chills, like a wet rag. When I see one of those cases, I just tighten up my mask a little.”

Why so bad this year? Well, this strain has been dormant for years, says USA TODAY:

The 2013 season is particularly wretched because one of the major strains in this year’s flu mix hasn’t been seen for five to nine years and people’s antibodies for it have waned, said Arnold Monto, a professor of epidemiology and member of the Infectious Diseases Society of America’s Influenza Advisory Group, which works with the CDC.

And this season, it’s not just the flu you have to worry about. Norovirus, a gastrointestinal bug that wreaks havoc on your stomach, is also going around. The Boston Globe writes:

“There is some overlap between flu and norovirus symptoms this year,” said Kosowsky, and it’s probably due to the nasty H3N2 strain that’s circulating and causing more severe flu symptoms than normal.

But, he emphasized, the vomiting and diarrhea associated with norovirus tends to be more explosive and intense.

So far, something like 24 deaths have been reported from the flu in states like Illinois and Massachusetts, where they’ve been hit particularly hard. Thankfully, the flu isn’t resistant to Tamiflu, and this year’s flu shot should protect most from the worst of it.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Swine Flu: Worst Case Scenario
Flu Shots for (Nearly) All

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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