updated 3/4/2005 10:36:42 AM ET 2005-03-04T15:36:42

After all the panic last fall over the vaccine shortage, the flu season is turning out to be milder than last year’s severe bout, but it may not have peaked yet, the government said Thursday.

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“It doesn’t look like it’s as severe as last year, but it’s too early to tell,” said Lynnette Brammer of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza branch.

Last year, flu cases started early and rapidly hit a high point in December, clogging emergency rooms with flu sufferers. By the end of that season, 153 children had died from the flu. So far this season, nine children have died from the flu.

Flu cases this season did not really start to increase until the end of December. As of Feb. 19, the latest data available, all 50 states have had at least one lab-confirmed flu case and 33 states have had widespread flu activity.

Weekly influenza estimatesThe outbreak could peak within the next two weeks, which would be somewhat later than usual, the CDC said. The season most often hits its peak in February.

But Brammer said later data may show that the season reached its height in February after all; the CDC will not be able to say for certain until it sees a drop-off in flu for a couple of weeks in a row.

The season began with widespread fears of a vaccine shortage after a factory in England was shut down. The shutdown cut off half the U.S. supply of shots.

That prompted the government to recommend restricting the shot to only high- risk groups, such as babies, the elderly and those with chronic conditions.

But many states lifted those restrictions last month after they found that many of the shots were still unused and might go to waste. A flu shot can be used only during the season it is made for.

Each year in the United States, about 36,000 people die of the flu and 200,000 are hospitalized.

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