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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Getting a Fix on a Surprising Flu Season

Flu season generally peaks in February. Not this year. Not the flu season that the H1N1 pandemic siren sounded. The only talk of the flu that rattles ears now is about its amazing disappearing act.

Reporting on "The Flu Season That Fizzled," The Wall Street Journal cites Centers for Disease Control data showing a sharp decline in flu-related doctors' visits since October, when flu season typically begins. Since then, not only is this CDC measure of U.S. flu activity down -- its pattern is downright distinct from that of previous years.

We at Gallup track the flu daily using a different measure. It's a behavioral measure, based not on what percentage of people actually are both sick and proactive enough to go to a doctor -- which is, arguably, a very high bar -- but on the percentage of adults who simply tell us they were sick with the flu "yesterday."

It was in November that we began to see something unexpected. Rather than ticking upward as one would expect for that time of year -- the percentage of Americans telling us they had the flu went down. So much so that we reported fewer self-reported flu cases than in the November prior. That's been the case for every month since then -- with this year's flu season remaining milder than last year's, and to its largest degree yet in February.

So, now flu experts are itching to figure out why these trends look the way they do. The World Health Organization says it isn't ready to conclude the worst of H1N1 is behind us, and doctors aren't ruling out a second go-round of seasonal flu.

What's clear is that this year's flu season is anything but typical. We'll keep tracking what Americans tell us and reporting what we find -- because the only unanimous verdict out there is that there's no telling what might happen next.

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