As doctors repeatedly warn, it’s not too late to get your flu shot.
That’s especially so in Kansas City, which, according to the maker of a “smart thermometer” app, has one of the highest rates of flu in the country.
“Right now it appears as if St. Louis has hit its peak and it’s slightly curbing down, but that could be an anomaly over a couple-day period. Kansas City is at 5.1 percent, right behind St. Louis. We’re talking about the two sickest places in the country right now,” says Inder Singh, founder and CEO of the app’s maker, Kinsa Inc.
How did Singh arrive at that conclusion?
Kinsa, based in San Francisco, California, pulls together massive amounts of users’ data — in this case a network of about one million users, according to Singh.
“We now have the earliest illness signal for spreading disease – fever, symptoms, et cetera. And we aggregate that data to understand where and when illness is spreading,” Singh says.
So far, Kinsa has closely matched data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The difference, Singh says, is that Kinsa can make its determinations quicker. That’s because the CDC relies on and has to wait for the data to trickle in from health care providers, labs and public health departments.
“Our data is real time,” Singh says. “Fortunately or unfortunately, their data streams in over the course of many weeks and they usually report at least a week late.”
He adds that the CDC cares about getting timely and accurate information, “but no one has had a system to do real-time, highly accurate data collection before, and that’s what we set out to do six years ago.”
According to the CDC, every state except Hawaii is reporting widespread influenza activity. Nearly 6,500 hospitalizations were attributed to the flu as of Jan. 6.
Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, director of the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Hospital, told KCUR’s Up to Date on Wednesday that the hospital has seen a 50 percent increase in the last week in flu detections.
“And we think we’re just now at the peak of disease,” she says.
That said, Jackson says this is a pretty typical season and there's widespread misconceptions about the effectiveness of the flu vaccine.
“In terms of influenza right now in Kansas City based on detections at Children’s Mercy, there are at least four circulating strains,” she says. “And the flu vaccine protects against four.”
Jackson says the vaccine is partially protective against certain strains, meaning it remains a good bet even if it’s no more than 30 percent effective, as this year’s vaccine is thought to be. As the CDC notes, the more people who get vaccinated, the more people will be protected, especially older people, very young children and others who are more susceptible to serious flu complications. And the vaccine can lessen flu symptoms.
“I put it to parents this way,” Jackson says. “If somebody told you that you had a two in 10 chance of winning the lottery, would you buy a ticket? Yes! Buy a ticket and get vaccinated. You’ll protect yourself, you’ll protect those around you who are at high risk from complications of influenza. And you will be less likely to be hospitalized and less likely to die.”
So far, Missouri has reported 659 pneumonia and flu-associated deaths this flu season. Kansas has reported 608. The figures include deaths for which influenza infection was a likely contributor to the cause of death and not just the primary cause of death.
Singh, who did public health work for The Clinton Foundation, says frustration about not knowing who and when people were getting ill led him to found Kinsa in 2012.
“If you just knew who was falling ill, you might be able to target your interventions: the vaccines, the diagnostics, the treatments that work to prevent it from spreading to the broader community,” Singh says.
“And unfortunately, there was no real-time surveillance system. As a result, it was like throwing things at a wall and hoping they stuck.”
That real-time surveillance shows Missouri as the sickest state in the country for the week ending Jan. 13. The state’s percentage of the population ill with the flu — 5.2 percent — compares with a national average of 3.7 percent, according to Kinsa’s data. Kansas weighs in a close second at 5 percent.
Nita Nehru, a spokeswoman for Kinsa, says of the sickest 10 market areas in the country, six are in Missouri and three are in Kansas.
Dan Margolies is a senior editor and reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.