Calling in Sick? The 2011-2012 Flu Season in the United States

Flu seasons are notoriously difficult to predict, but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that approximately 5-20% of Americans get the flu each year. Euromonitor International examines potential trends affecting the 2011-2012 flu season.

Now is the time for flu prevention

The timing of flu season varies from year to year. Though flu activity, such as doctor and hospital visits for flu-like symptoms, typically peaks in January or February, activity can occur as early as October or as late as May. As of November 2011, however, flu activity in the US has been low, leading public health analysts to be cautiously optimistic that this will be a “typical” flu season. This also means that it is the ideal time to get vaccinated against the flu. The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older gets an annual flu shot, with a special focus on at-risk groups. These include people over 65, young children, pregnant women, and those with chronic health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, as well as those more likely to be exposed to the flu, such as health care workers.

Access to flu shots will be easier than ever this year because the vaccine supply is at record levels. Manufacturers estimate that total production is around 166-173 million doses, the most ever in the US. There may even be some reason to believe that the annual frequency of flu shots will be unnecessary in the future. SEEK, a London-based drug-discovery company, announced in early November promising clinical study results for a flu vaccine that would protect against multiple strains of the flu virus and would only need to be administered once, much like vaccinations for measles or mumps.

Don’t get rid of your flu remedies just yet

Getting a flu shot may be the best way to avoid catching the flu, but that does not mean everyone is signing up. A “Seasonal Wellness Survey” administered on behalf of Safeway stores found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe flu shots prevent the flu, but only half plan to get one this year. If this flu season conforms more to last, the number will be closer to 40%. Most insurance plans cover the cost as preventive care, so convenience likely pays a bigger role. Many drugstores and supermarket pharmacies are trying to capitalize on this consideration by launching aggressive flu shot marketing campaigns this year; Walgreens, for example, even offers drop-in appointments 24 hours a day at some locations. Another factor, however, is the historically common misconception that a flu shot can give a person the flu. The CDC’s 2011 National Flu Survey found that nearly half of adults were not at all worried about this possibility, but nearly a quarter still were. Although the idea that flu shots cause the flu is a myth (flu vaccines do not contain any live virus), it is possible that vaccination is not a panacea. In October 2011 The Lancet reported that flu shots can provide moderate protection, but that they are much less effective in some seasons than others.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) treatment is just what the doctor ordered

Counter-intuitively, use of OTC treatments sometimes decreases during particularly intense flu seasons, as more people seek doctor visits and prescription medications. In fact, American adults incur an estimated US$10 billion in flu-related doctor and hospital visits each year. Most authorities agree, however, that OTC remedies are the preferred mode of treatment for the majority of individuals. The CDC only recommends prescription antivirals for those who are very sick or in an at-risk population. Another CDC campaign, implemented in November 2011, also endorses OTC symptom relief for viral infections like the flu; many people seek prescription antibiotics, which are not only ineffective against non-bacterial infections, but can also contribute to the spread of medication-resistant strains.

The regulatory and retailing environment in the US makes it easy to obtain OTC products for flu symptoms, and indeed the US is by far the largest consumer of such products, spending over US$10 billion in 2010 according to Euromonitor International data. Many companies are also promoting novel methods for OTC flu treatment. Pfizer launched a revamped version of its free Robitussin Relief Finder mobile app, which tracks nationwide flu activity and finds nearby stores selling Robitussin products. Novartis has a similar mobile app called WheresFlu, centred on its Theraflu line, which provides weekly incidence levels and the top five affected cities. In the social media venue, a new social networking site called uses Facebook and Twitter data to create symptom-targeted area maps, with related pharmaceutical ads.

Parents are another key target for OTC flu remedies. The 2010 recalls of Johnson & Johnson paediatric products and general concerns about children’s dosages have made parents wary of OTC medicines. New products, such as those from Prestige Brands’ PediaCare and Little Remedies lines, address these concerns with special dosage devices and single-concentration formulas. Even more common are non-medicated natural treatments. Homeolab USA introduced an acetaminophen-free homeopathic product to its Kids Relief line, while Hyland expanded the homeopathic cold and flu options under its 4 Kids banner. Prestige Brands launched a honey-based cough and sore throat solution, and The Natural Dentist rolled out an alcohol-free throat spray.

Self-treating adults are also part of the natural trend, with additional focus on convenient delivery. AgroLabs’ liquid immunity shots, ProPhase Labs’ new Cold-EEZE throat spray, and Matrixx Initiatives’ cherry-flavoured Zicam Rapid Chews all fill this niche. In addition, Bayer HealthCare is adding a new offering to its Alka-Seltzer Plus line in the form of unflavoured, noncarbonated crystal packs that can be mixed into hot or cold drinks. With winter providing greater opportunities for flu viruses to circulate as people spend more time indoors, unvaccinated people still in the majority, and greater public promotion of OTC treatment, these and other products will most certainly have an ample market this flu season.