The flu season has gotten off to its quickest start in nearly a decade, a sign that it could be a bad year for the illness, officials said Monday.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged people to get a flu shot to minimize the impact of the deadly disease's spread.
Speaking to publicize National Influenza Vaccination Week, Frieden said a flu shot was the best tool available to stop the spread of the disease, along with covering your mouth when coughing and washing your hands.
"This is the earliest regular flu season we've seen in nearly a decade," Frieden said in a conference call with reporters. "That suggests this could be a bad flu year."
The flu is caused by different strains and part of the test for scientists is trying to mix a vaccine that includes the strains that are most likely to be dominant in any given season. The current vaccine, which has been prepared in advance, seems well-matched for the strains that now are working their way through the population, Frieden said.
Based on early testing, Frieden said that the number of suspected flu cases has jumped in five Southern states: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. The dominant flu type is the same as the one associated with the flu season of 2003-2004, when the outbreak was bad, he said.
The CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months of age and older. It usually takes about two weeks for the body's immune response to fully kick in.
Especially at risk are children younger than 2 and people older than 65. People with chronic conditions such as asthma and heart disease are also at risk.With the holiday season in mind, Frieden urged people be careful.
"Spread good cheer and give presents," he said. But "don't share infections and spread the flu."