Feb 8, 2013 11:29 PM by RYAN JASLOW - CBS News

Worst of flu season may be over as death rates continue to fall

Flu deaths continue to fall across the United States, giving health officials cautious optimism that the 2012-2013 flu season may be on its way out.

According to the latest numbers released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9 percent of all U.S. deaths during the week of Jan. 27 through Feb. 2 were tied to pneumonia or influenza-like illness, down from 9.4 percent from the week before.

The flu continues to be considered an epidemic because the death rate exceeds the government's measurable threshold of 7.4 percent of deaths caused by a specific disease. However, the worst may be behind us, officials said.

"We're not at the end but we're nearing the end," Michael Jhung, an epidemiologist at the CDC, told USA Today.

The CDC releases its FluView surveillance report every Friday.

Thirty-eight states are now reporting widespread flu activity, also down from the previous report which showed 42 states with widespread flu.

Fewer states are also reporting high rates of flu, with 19 states and New York City seeing lots of activity. Last week the CDC said 24 states and New York City were experiencing heavy flu.

"It's likely that the worst of the current flu season is over," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told the Associated Press.

Fourteen more pediatric deaths were reported in the latest update, bringing the child death toll for this flu season to 59 .

In the last 10 flu seasons, between 43 and 153 U.S. children have died from flu.

The CDC does not release information about adult flu deaths, but an estimated 24,000 people die each year.

Flu-related hospitalizations continued to climb, with 29.8 per every 100,000 Americans being admitted for flu, up from 25.9 out of 100,000 people from the previous report. The elderly continue to be the age group getting hit hardest, accounting for more than 50 percent of reported hospitalizations.

Dr. William Schaffner, of Vanderbilt University, past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, told CBS This Morning this week that this year's strain is more virulent than previous years, and seniors are often more susceptible to flu because their immune systems are more frail than those of younger people.

"When flu strikes, they're more likely to get the complications of influenza," he said.

The CDC has urged people 65 and older and other high-risk groups, such as those with underlying medical conditions, to seek antiviral flu treatment quickly if they develop flu symptoms. The CDC says antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza can reduce symptoms, decrease chances the flu will turn into pneumonia and help prevent the need for hospitalization.

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