The CDC announced this week that the flu season has arrived early this year and could be worse than usual because of its premature appearance. “We’re seeing the beginning of the uptick start at least a month before we’d generally see it,” cautioned CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden, explaining that flu rates typically start to rise in early January.

Readers are cautioned to get the vaccine if not already immunized.

The CDC reports are timely for the United States, but where can world travelers go to get information on flu prevalence overseas? And will the vaccine they receive in the United States provide coverage?

The World Health Organization provides an update on influenza every two weeks. In its last report on November 23, officials reported that despite an increase in North America, the incidence of influenza worldwide had not yet exceeded seasonal levels.

The good news is that the influenza vaccine provides global coverage, with the occasional exception of isolated areas in the Far East where blue flu and swine flu are endemic. The vaccine is developed months ahead of time and is designed to provide immunity against the influenza strains that are predicted to be prevalent in the upcoming season. Scientists appear to have made the correct selection for this year’s vaccine.

Other times, they have not been so lucky. In 2003-2004, the last year the flu season started peaking in December, the selected vaccine strains did not match the influenza subtypes that infected millions of people and the vaccine was unable to mitigate an unusually high number of influenza-related hospitalizations and death.

Travelers are at particularly high risk for exposure to the influenza virus and should be especially careful if traveling to a location identified by the World Health Organization as experiencing a spike in influenza cases. The flu vaccine should be part of the trip preparation process along with attention to universal precautions after arrival to minimize the chance of getting the flu.

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About The Author

Frank Gillingham, M.D. serves as Chief Medical Director for HTH Worldwide. Frank has led HTH Worldwide's international business development efforts in Europe and Canada and has been a guest speaker at international business conferences and has authored a series of articles on travel medicine, including pieces on travel information available on the Internet and the role of physicians working with travel insurers. Frank is a Board-Certified Internist and Emergency Medicine Specialist. He is also a private emergency physician in Southern California and a former emergency department director and member of the UCLA emergency department staff. Frank completed residency training at Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, received his M.D. from Albert Einstein College of Medicine and his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania .

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