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CDC Recommends Antiviral Drugs For At-Risk Patients


Odds are that by this point in the year, either you or someone you know has been stricken by the flu. Tracking the annual flu season is a perennial news story, but this year, it really is worse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already declared an influenza epidemic. The CDC's director, Dr. Tom Frieden, joins me now from Atlanta. Dr. Frieden, welcome to the program.

DR. TOM FRIEDEN: Thanks very much for covering this.

MARTIN: What is going on this year? Why is it different? Why are we seeing so many more infections?

FRIEDEN: Each year, we have a flu season, but how bad that flu season is depends on a few things, including the virus that's circulating, how many people get vaccinated and whether people get promptly treated if they get the flu.

MARTIN: We've heard reports that the current flu vaccine isn't actually the right vaccine for this current flu strain. Why is that?

FRIEDEN: Flu vaccines have three or four different strains of influenza in them. And this year, one of the strains, what's called H3N2, began changing just after the world made the decision to use this particular strain. That is the dominant strain that's circulating now, but not the only strain. So limited as the effectiveness may be, the flu vaccine is still the best single thing you can do to protect yourself and prevent getting influenza.

MARTIN: So it was just very unlucky timing.

FRIEDEN: Well, there's still a lot that people can do to protect themselves against the flu. First, get a vaccine and, of course, if you're sick, stay home. And this year, we're particularly focusing on antiviral drugs. People who are sick with flu, if they're very sick in the hospital or if they have underlying, chronic medical conditions, like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, women who are pregnant ,children under two and people over the age of 65 - all of these people, if they get flu, should get treated with antiviral drugs. The evidence indicates that it will shorten how long you're sick, might keep you out of the hospital and could even save your life.

MARTIN: Antivirals like Tamiflu. The CDC website, though, does say that people who are generally healthy who happen to get the flu do not need to be treated with antiviral drugs.

FRIEDEN: If you don't have one of these underlying conditions, then we say you can take Tamiflu, but we don't necessarily recommend it. But for the others, who are really at significant risk - we hope that patients and doctors are much more likely this year to use Tamiflu than the past because we know from past years, that the rates of use are very low.

In fact, just before this interview, I spoke with one of our leading experts in influenza. His mother was hospitalized with influenza. He asked the doctors to give her Tamiflu or another antiviral, and they didn't.

MARTIN: Why are health care providers reticent to administer it? Is it because supplies are low?

FRIEDEN: There are ample supplies, though, there could be spot shortages in some places. Generally, there's enough. We think doctors aren't used to the idea. We're used to the idea of treating bacterial infections with antibiotics. But we're just not that accustomed to treating the flu with antivirals. And that's something we hope will change.

MARTIN: Let's say you're a healthy adult but you happen to come down with the flu. So ordinarily, you wouldn't necessarily go out and get an antiviral. But what if you live with someone, a child or an elderly person, who is in that category of immunocompromised folks? Should you then go seek antiviral treatment?

FRIEDEN: There is some evidence that suggests that taking antiviral medications may reduce the risk that you'll spread the disease to others in your family so it may be helpful for others as well as for yourself.

MARTIN: Dr. Tom Frieden. He is the director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Dr. Frieden, thank you so much.

FRIEDEN: Thank you. All the best for a healthy 2015. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.