Prescriptions filled for antiviral medications were up 314% in the last three months of 2022, compared to last year, new research shows.
The data was published last week by Evernorth, a subsidiary of Cigna. The Evernorth Research Institute examined pharmacy claims data for more than 16 million people to conduct the study.
Flu season typically lasts from September to August. In the twelfth week of the 2022-2023 flu season, there were 1,093 members per 1 million filling prescriptions for antiviral medications. During the same period last year, there were 264 members per 1 million. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the number of flu vaccines distributed in the U.S. is so far lower in the 2022-2023 season, compared to the 2021-2022 season and the 2020-2021 season.
“Our research indicates that more people are getting sick with the flu earlier on this season, and that their symptoms are severe enough to warrant a doctor’s visit and a prescription while flu vaccination rates are lower than previous years,” said Urvashi Patel, vice president of the Evernorth Research Institute, said in an email.
Children have a higher need for flu medications, compared to other age groups, the study also found.
“The higher prevalence could be a result of parents and guardians being more likely to seek medical attention for their dependents,” Patel said in the report. “Adults themselves may not always seek medical attention when they are ill, particularly if their symptoms are mild.”
Location also plays a role, according to Evernorth. Southern states have a higher prevalence of antiviral medication usage, with 1,639 members per 1 million filling prescriptions for antiviral medication in the twelfth week of the flu season, compared to 845 in the Midwest, 927 in the Northeast and 708 in the West. This correlates with lower flu vaccination rates in the South, the researchers said. Southern states have a high rural population, who often struggle to access vaccines.
Additionally, use of flu antiviral medications varies by race and ethnicity, with higher usage among people in areas with the “most social needs,” the report said. This is consistent with other research that shows Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native populations have higher rates of hospitalization and admission to intensive care units for the flu, compared to White people.
Based on these findings, employers and payers must play a role in encouraging people to get vaccinated for the flu, Patel said.
“The best defense we have against flu is vaccination. We recommend employers and health plans encourage and make it easy for their members to get vaccinated, such as through education, promoting health incentives, and hosting on-site flu vaccine clinics,” he said in an email.
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