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Gallup Survey: U.S. Flu and Cold Reports Among Highest Since 2008

Results corroborate CDC report

According to a new Gallup survey, an average 4.0% of Americans reported being sick with flu on any given day in December 2014. This is higher than all previous Decembers since Gallup began tracking the flu daily in 2008, and is one of the highest rates for any month during the past 7 years. The all-time high is 4.7%, measured in January 2013.

Given that reports of having the flu are typically highest in January or February, the 2013–2014 flu season could end up being the worst flu season in Gallup’s records, the company says. However, it may also be that the flu is peaking early this season, as happened in 2009–2010, when the flu peaked in October amid the outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

The Gallup–Healthways Well-Being Index asks Americans each day whether they were sick with the flu “yesterday.” This differs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) measure, which tracks influenza infections reported from doctors and hospitals. However, Gallup’s data closely conform with those of the CDC for December. In the last week of December, the CDC classified flu activity as “widespread” in 43 of the 50 U.S. states. Nationwide, the CDC reports that 5.9% of physician visits involved flu-like symptoms during the last week of December, up from 4.3% during the same week in 2013.

In December, an average 11.6% of Americans reported they “were sick with a cold yesterday,” the highest percentage Gallup has found for any month since 2008. Before December 2014, the highest rate was 10.8% (in January 2013). The highest December reading before this year was in 2008, when an average 10.3% of Americans reported being sick with a cold.

Generally, about three times as many Americans report having a cold as report having the flu, Gallup says.

It is possible that Gallup’s measures of daily cold and flu underestimate the true infection rate, because those who were sick the day before may be less likely to respond to a phone survey than are those who were not sick. In addition, it may be difficult for people to accurately self-diagnose the medical distinction between the flu and a cold, given the similarity in the symptoms of both conditions.

As is found in most years, Hispanics and lower-income Americans are more likely than non-Hispanic blacks and whites, and Americans with higher incomes, respectively, to report having the flu, Gallup says. In December 2014, blacks were more likely than whites to report having colds (15.4% compared with 10.3%). Americans who said they had children living in their household were more likely than those with no young children in the home to report having colds or the flu last month.

Across age groups, reports of colds are highest among young adults, whereas flu reports are highest among middle-aged adults. The number of reports of colds decreased with each successively older age group, from 15.7% among those aged 18 to 29 years to 9.6% among those aged 65 and older. By contrast, the flu was most prevalent among middle-aged adults aged 30 to 64 years, at 5.0% or more, compared with less than 2.0% in the oldest and youngest groups.

Public health campaigns often focus on encouraging older Americans to get flu vaccines, which may help explain the lower infection rates Gallup found among seniors. In fact, a higher-dose flu shot was specifically designed for 65 years of age and older. Keeping older Americans’ infection rates low is crucial, Gallup says, as about 90% of deaths from flu occur in Americans in this age group.

The CDC recently reported that the vaccine administered in 2014 contains virus strains different from those currently infecting people, indicating that the virus may have mutated.

The CDC still recommends getting a flu vaccination this year because a shot lowers the severity of the illness. To avoid becoming sick with or spreading the cold or flu, the CDC recommends frequent hand washing and staying home when people feel like they may have these illnesses.

The results of the new Gallup survey were based on telephone interviews conducted December 1–30, 2014 with a random sample of 13,165 adults, aged 18 years and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Source: Gallup; January 8, 2014.

 

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