By Kara Hackett
The first week of January marks the start of a new semester. But as students are heading back to class, campuses are breeding illness, especially influenza. So far, 29 states have reported high levels of "influenza-like illness," and 18 children have died from the disease, according to the most recent weekly flu advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During the flu season, about five percent of patient visits to health clinics in Indiana are for flu-like Illnesses, and according to The Indianapolis Star, that number has already reached seven percent this year. Nationwide, the numbers have climbed from 2.8 percent to 5.6 percent in four weeks, according to FoxNews.com. That's 3.4 percent higher than the peak rate last year. This year, the flu season is peaking its earliest in nearly a decade, says Dr. Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Mayo Clinic in Ohio. The season typically runs October to May and peaks in late January or early February. This year it is nearly five weeks early. The last time the flu season started this early was in 2003-2004 when it killed more than 48,000 Americans. Forbes says there is no clear reason for this year's early peak, but it may signal another dangerous season ahead. The predominant flu strand causing problems this year is type A influenza called H3N2, the same severe and rapidly spreading strand seen in the 2003-2004 season, according to CDC reports. Luckily, this year's flu vaccine matches this strand, but FoxNews.com reports most Americans are not getting vaccinated. Although the CDC recommends vaccination for everyone more than 6 months old, only 46 percent of Americans got the vaccine by the end of March last year. Dr. Frank Esper, a viral respiratory disease expert at UH Case Medical Center in Ohio, told FoxNews.com that most Americans shy away from the shots because of myths associated with the vaccine and apathy to its necessity. FoxNews.com says the biggest myth is that you can get the flu from the shot because it contains parts of the flu virus. Esper debunks this theory, saying that the flu vaccine has parts of the virus, but those parts are not enough to rearrange and recreate the virus. Esper says another reason Americans avoid the vaccine is because they underestimate the severity of the disease even though it is the number one cause of infectious disease death. Esper says it causes 5,000-20,000 deaths every year. Although flu vaccines are 67 percent effective in preventing the disease, even people who are vaccinated may get the virus. The best way to stay healthy is to prevent the spread of germs. Poland says one way to do this on college campuses is by coughing into the crook of your elbow instead of coughing into your hands. "The greatest source of illness at a university setting is poor respiratory etiquette," Poland said. He also suggests students and faculty wash their hands frequently and keep their hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth. For more information about the influenza vaccine, visit the American Lung Association's website.