Few in U.S. see doctor or get medication for flu: study

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Only a small percentage of people who get influenza or a similar illness are ever prescribed drugs shown to help the virus, according to a study released on Monday.

Patients wait in line to receive a flu vaccine in Fairfax, Virginia, in a file photo. REUTERS/Larry Downing

The survey of flu patients also showed that about five percent of U.S. children see a doctor or nurse for influenza-like illness, compared to just about 2 percent of adults.

Thomson Reuters Healthcare surveyed insurance claims covering nearly 20 million people with health insurance over two flu seasons in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007.

Anywhere between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population gets flu in a given flu season, the CDC estimates.

The researchers, part of one of the research divisions of media and information firm Thomson Reuters, were looking at influenza-like illnesses, which include influenza proper but also other respiratory diseases that cause fever, cough and other symptoms.

They found that 4 to 6 percent of patients with influenza like illnesses filled a prescription for an antiviral medication. Roche and Co’s Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline’s Relenza are both recommended for treating influenza.

But most clinics do not use on-the-spot flu tests, and use of the drugs is low.

Doctors usually recommend only rest, fluids and perhaps analgesics for treating viruses such as flu, although influenza kills 36,000 Americans in an average flu season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of those who die are elderly or have chronic disease, but the Thomson Reuters data showed that patients with flu-like illness who seek medical treatment are more likely to be children.

“Approximately 1 in 18 children, 1 in 38 elderly persons, and 1 in 45 adults used influenza-like-illness-related inpatient or outpatient services in each flu season,” the report reads.

This works out to 5.6 percent of children, compared to 2.6 percent of the elderly.

But older people in general did use doctors more often.

“A greater percentage of elderly enrollees (53.4 percent) than adult (32.4 percent) or child enrollees (26.4 percent) used any inpatient or outpatient health services in flu season 2006-2007,” the report reads.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Jackie Frank