The fall/winter wave of H1N1 swine flu ebbed in December. But there was a disturbing and unusual holiday uptick in flu hospitalizations and deaths.
Whether there will be a new wave of infections is anybody's bet, but history suggests it would be unwise to wager your health on the chance the pandemic is over. Anne Schuchat, MD, the CDC's chief of immunization and respiratory disease, points to a graph charting deaths in the 1957 pandemic.
That graph shows a steep decline in deaths in early January, followed by a steep increase in deaths during January and February that finally peaks in March.
"In 1957 they essentially gave the all-clear whistle," Schuchat said at a news conference. "They had vaccine but didn't encourage its use. Then they did see an increase in mortality."
Federal health officials from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on down aren't taking the same chance in 2010. They're making a big push to get Americans to get their H1N1 vaccinations as soon as possible.
Vaccine supply isn't a problem any more, Schuchat announced. The U.S. has now made 136 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine available to states. The vaccine is widely available throughout the nation.
More than 60 million Americans have been vaccinated, Schuchat said, leaving plenty of vaccine for anyone else who wants it. That includes seniors and other adults who were not on the original priority list.
"Having as many people vaccinated as possible is our best course of action," Schuchat said. "We now have a key window of opportunity. We don't want to repeat the 1957 experience. ... I would hate for people to think this is over and then get sick or hospitalized. Our enemy right now is complacency."
A big question is whether seasonal flu will show its teeth this year. Seasonal flu generally peaks around February. To date, there have been very few cases.