Cough, sore throat, body aches, fever. If you've typed these words into Google recently, you're not alone.
This year's flu season is off to a fast and furious start. The chart above shows data from Google's influenza tracker, which analyzes how often people are searching for flu-related terms on Google to estimate how many people have fallen ill. Google's model was developed with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and can show changes in the trajectory of an epidemic before they appear in data collected from doctors and hospitals.
Google's data show this year's outbreak to be the worst in the last six years. That includes the 2009 swine flu outbreak, which infected about 61 million Americans but turned out to be less deadly than initially feared. Globally, the U.S. remains the hardest hit, though it's still early in the Northern Hemisphere season for numbers to be peaking.
The Google data aren't perfect, and the weekly CDC flu report suggests a somewhat lesser outbreak. Three seasons in the last decade registered at least as bad as the current level of outbreak, according to the CDC data (left): the 2009 pandemic, and the moderately severe seasons of 2007-2008 and 2003-2004. Another positive sign is that the death toll this season, while above normal for this time of year, so far isn’t especially gruesome.
The flu kills anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people in the U.S. every year, and about 500,000 globally. The vaccine is designed to anticipate the three most active strains for the upcoming flu season, though scientists sometimes get stumped by the rapidly mutating viruses. This year’s shot is a pretty good match, making a person 62 percent less likely to get sick. Even when the shot fails to prevent a bout of flu, it can make it much less severe – a few days of moderate sickness compared to being wiped out for up to two weeks.
On average, flu costs U.S. employers $10.4 billion in direct costs of hospitalization and outpatient visits. Unfortunately, Americans aren’t very good about going in for checkups or for getting the recommended shots. Just 37 percent had been vaccinated by November, when the outbreak started to pick up. It takes two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect.
Of course, it’s not too late to get vaccinated, and many Americans are doing just that -- 130 million and counting.
Click here for a map of pharmacies and clinics where the vaccine is offered in your area. The CDC is reporting spot shortages of shots and recommends calling ahead to ensure availability.
Analyses and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.
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