Flu season: Worst may be over

Posted at 11:49 AM, Feb 18, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-18 11:49:58-05

By Stacey Welsh

(CNN) — The current flu season, which began early and has been more severe than last year’s, is slowing down, health officials say.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest flu numbers, released Friday, show “influenza-like illness (ILI) continued to decrease for the third consecutive week. Most regions are showing stable or declining levels of ILI activity again this week.”

The 2012-13 flu season began in December — much earlier than usual. But Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC’s director, told a congressional hearing last week it did not reach “pandemic proportions.”

Frieden and representatives from the Food and Drug Administration and the Government Accountability Office testified before members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce to discuss the flu season and give an update on preparations for next year.

An H3N2 flu strain has been the most dominant and has been especially hard on the elderly. Frieden said in the hearing about twice as many elderly people have been hospitalized with flu symptoms than in recent years. That includes the 2007-08 and 2003-04 seasons, which also saw a predominant H3N2 strain.

Five more pediatric deaths were reported during the week of February 9, the date with the latest data available. So far, 64 children have died from the flu this season, a number still lower than 153 reported in the 2003-04 season.

Even though it appears the flu season is nearing its end, people may still contract the flu. Frieden repeated those with flu symptoms — particularly those who are older or young children — should see their doctor and, if possible, take the antiviral medications Tamiflu or Relenza to lessen symptoms.

Consumers should beware, however, of products sold over the Internet claiming to cure or prevent the flu, the FDA said last week.

The agency has sent warning letters to nine companies it claims were selling such products online. A number of them were “generic Tamiflu” — which is not approved for use in the United States. Some were supplements not approved by the FDA.

“The letters went to firms marketing these products on their website, but we know some of these products are available in retail stores also,” said Gary Coody, the FDA’s national health fraud coordinator, said Friday “There are no over-the-counter products approved to prevent, cure and treat the flu, so none of these products are allowed to make these claims.”

The agency begins surfing the Internet for such promotions each time a health threat emerges, he said.

“Some of these products arise overnight. We saw it with the avian flu, we saw it with the H1N1 flu in 2009 and we’re seeing it now. And of course with the Internet and social media, there’s almost immediate access to consumers.”

According to Coody, more than 100 warning letters were sent to companies over products, devices and supplements during the H1N1 outbreak.

The companies have 15 days to let the FDA know how they intend to make corrections and bring their products into compliance.

Six have already removed the products from their websites or have made partial or complete corrections to their claims. If no action is taken after 15 days, they could be subject to legal sanctions, product seizure or even criminal prosecution.

Coody has these tips for consumers:

— Beware of online websites selling generic Tamiflu or Relenza. There are no FDA-approved generic versions of these two drugs.

— Beware of products that claim to boost your immunity naturally without a flu shot, claim to be a safe and alternative option to the flu vaccine, claim to prevent you from catching the flu or claim to support your body’s natural defenses to fight the flu.