Nightly News   |  January 04, 2013

Flu season escalates from bad to worse

The major strain circulating this year is making patients especially sick, and in some cases it has proven deadly. NBC’s Robert Bazell reports.

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>> good evening, i'm lester holt in tonight for brian, who will be back monday. a lot of americans are spending this first week of the new year flat on their backs, taken down by the flu in numbers we typically wouldn't see until much later in the winter. and according to the centers for disease control , those numbers are rapidly climbing with a peak nowhere in sight. the government reports as of a week ago, flu cases were widespread in 41 states. that's 10 more states and a week earlier. what's more, this flu strain appears to be a particularly nasty one. it's even proven deadly in a handful of cases involving the young. nbc's chief science correspondent robert bazell starts us off tonight with more.

>> have you had the flu shot before?

>> reporter: packed clinics across the country and the cdcs numbers confirm what was already a bad flu season is getting worse.

>> we have seen high fever, severe body aches, nasal congestion, cough.

>> reporter: doctors say the major strain circulating this year is making its victims especially sick. and in some cases, it's proven deadly. high school senior max showorth died the day after christmas.

>> it started out as the flu and turned into pneumonia and had a staph infection on top of that. so those three things combined took over very quickly.

>> reporter: he was one of 18 deaths in children and teens so far this year. such rare cases show just how dangerous flu can be. doctors say the best defense remains the flu vaccine . it's not perfect, but it's the best we've got. and there's still plenty of time and vaccine left. they also urge people who are sick to stay away from work to avoid infecting others. the flu virus is often transmitted with coughs and sneezes. but it can live on all the surfaces we touch, and think how many there are. for up to eight hours. that's why frequent hand-washing is so important. and increasingly, hospitals are taking a big step. requiring health care workers to get vaccinated or lose their jobs. until recently, fewer than half got the vaccine. experts say that puts patients at risk, and sets a very bad example.

>> it's a perfectly reasonable thing for the public to say, goodness, if my doctor or nurse don't get vaccinated, why should i?

>> reporter: sue and joyce are among eight nurses fired from iu health in indiana for refusing to get vaccinated.

>> i have the right to put in my body what i feel is right for me under god. and it's wrong, i believe, for employers to take away my rights.

>> reporter: for the hospital says the nurses don't have the right to be around patients unless they are vaccinated. this clash may ultimately be decided by the courts. it's one of the worst flu epidemics in many years continues to grow. robert bazell , nbc news, new york.