The region and nation have trudged through the most intense stretch of the 2012-13 flu season, most public health authorities say.
“I'm pretty sure we're over the peak now,” said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health.
Data such as Nebraska and Iowa school absence reports indicate the peak in this tough flu season occurred about a month ago. Douglas County reported that the 1,956 confirmed cases from the beginning of the season through last week are the most in the county since at least 2002.
So intense was this flu season that federal health officials conceded the vaccine hadn't served the elderly well.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that the vaccine proved only slightly effective for the elderly against the most common flu strain this season. Health officials expected the vaccine to fight that strain, among others, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said Friday, but it didn't do the job well.
The vaccine was less than 10 percent effective against the H3 strain in the elderly. For most people, Skinner said, it worked well half to two-thirds of the time.
The flu vaccination remains the best weapon against the flu, Skinner said, but it's far from flu-proof armor.
“We need better vaccines,” Skinner said Friday. “There's no question about that.”
Nevertheless, Skinner said, the vaccine is believed to diminish the severity even in people who contract the flu, so it can mean the difference between life and death.
Dr. Marvin Bittner, associate professor in Creighton University's School of Medicine, made a pitch Friday for more widespread use of “high-dose” flu vaccine.
The higher-dose vaccination, generally given to the elderly, produces higher antibody levels in a person and logically fights the flu more effectively, he said.
Bittner is on the speakers' bureau for the pharmaceutical company that produces the high-dose vaccine. The federal government first approved the vaccine for use in the 2010-11 flu season.
Bittner said clinical studies haven't yet conclusively proven the higher dose is more effective, but he believes they will.
Quinlisk said she awaits that conclusive proof. “It would be wonderful if they work,” she said of high-dose vaccinations.
Regardless, this flu season's toughest stretch appears to be over. In Nebraska, 15 people have died of flu. Six of those were in Douglas County, including one last week, said Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department.
Dr. Joann Schaefer, chief medical officer for the state of Nebraska, said all indicators suggest “we've definitely peaked and we're on the decline now.”
The state counts flu cases differently from Douglas County.
The county includes rapid flu tests done in doctors' offices, and the state does not. The state's tally of 812 cases so far is the most since at least 2008, although the state considers separately the 523 H1N1 cases in the 2009 outbreak of that strain.
Pour said the number of cases weekly indicates flu season is sliding out. Last week the county recorded 54 cases, the week before 104 and the week of Jan. 19 — the highest so far this season — the county reported 300 cases.
“We are hopeful that the decline is going to continue,” Pour said. Nevertheless, she was reluctant to say the worst is over.
“I would like to see another week of low numbers.”
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