A record-breaking flu season has clearly passed its peak, with visits to doctors for flu-like illnesses plunging over the past three weeks, federal health officials reported Friday.
Still, another five children have died, bringing the total to 119, and the flu rages on in many areas of the country, according to the latest report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of March 3, flu remained geographically widespread in 34 states, down from 45 the week before, and was causing high levels of illness in 21 states, down from 32, CDC said.
Among states with low levels of flu now: Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, North Dakota, Ohio, Tennessee and Utah. Among those still seeing high rates: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.
Nationwide, 3.7% of doctors' visits were for flu-like illnesses, down from 5% the week before and 7.7% when the flu peaked, in early February. That peak level of intensity was the highest seen since the swine flu pandemic of 2009.
This year's flu also has led to record-breaking levels of hospitalization. Baby boomers and older adults have been hardest hit, followed by children.
The flu could continue to spread for several more weeks, health officials say.
One reason the season has been so bad: a vaccine effectiveness rate of just 36% overall and 25% for the flu strain causing the most illness. The vaccine has been more effective in children, preventing 59% of illnesses in those who received the shot.
Despite that, the 119 child deaths seen this year already are higher than those recorded in the past couple of flu seasons. In the most recent severe flu season from 2014-2015, 148 children eventually died. About 30% of children who died of flu in recent years have been vaccinated, compared to about 60% of children overall, research shows.
The CDC does not keep an exact count of adult flu deaths, but says more than 50,000 can die in a severe season like this one.
This flu season has been a reminder that the world needs better flu vaccines, federal health officials said in a Congressional hearing Thursday.
“Ultimately, developing a universal influenza vaccine that provides protection against many different strains of flu from year-to-year would be ideal. However, the reality of such a vaccine is likely to still be many years away,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in prepared remarks to the House Energy and Commerce Committee.