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Precaution advised as flu season arrives
Local outbreak not yet confirmed

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

If you are feeling badly, it could be the flu. Or it might not be.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the flu season nationwide is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade, and it might be a bad one. Yet indications are that it has not reached that point locally.

About 6 percent of emergency department patients at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville are being treated for flu-like symptoms, and about 60 percent of them are testing positive for actual influenza, according to Robbie Parks, the department’s manager.

So far this month, the emergency department has seen an average of 123 patients per day, Parks said. That is up from a daily average of 109 in November, he said.

However, he was unable to determine if there is a flu outbreak locally.

Martinsville school officials said they have not seen any major increase in student absenteeism. Henry County school officials could not be reached for comment.

The flu season generally runs from October through May, according to health officials.

Influenza reported statewide by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has been about normal for this time of the year, said Sharon Ortiz-Garcia, epidemiologist for the Henry-Martinsville Health Department.

As of Monday, statistics indicated that roughly 2.25 percent of Virginians recently have sought medical treatment for flu-like symptoms, she said.

Ortiz-Garcia said she so far has seen no evidence of a flu outbreak locally or that the current flu season is going to be worse than normal.

But higher-than-usual numbers of flu cases confirmed in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas prompted CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden to say “it looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season.”

The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths. The dominant strain of flu back then was the same one as this year.

However, there is a major difference between then and now. In 2003-04, the vaccine then was poorly matched to the dominant flu strain. Also, there is more vaccine now, and vaccination rates have risen for the public and for key groups such as pregnant women and health care workers.

Often, the number of reported influenza cases increases from December through February, but that is not necessarily an indication that flu is widespread, Ortiz-Garcia said.

Medical facilities such as hospitals, doctor’s offices and nursing homes are supposed to report confirmed flu cases to the state health department.

However, it is impossible to count every person who has the flu since not everyone with flu-like symptoms sees a doctor and even fewer have their illness confirmed by a laboratory test, the VDH website shows.

The flu is a contagious respiratory sickness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. Cases range from mild to severe, and sometimes it can be lethal, the website shows.

Symptoms of the flu can include fever, cough, sore throat, tiredness, chills, head and body aches, runny nose and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. But people with such symptoms may not have influenza.

“If you feel like you’ve got the flu, go to the doctor” and have a test to find out whether it actually is influenza, Ortiz-Garcia said.

The test is necessary to receive proper treatment, she said. Prescription medications are available that lessen the severity of influenza in patients.

Although not foolproof, flu vaccinations are the best method of protection from the flu, according to the state health department. It recommends that everyone aged 6 months and older — except those who have had severe reactions in the past — get vaccinated each year.

Information about who should and should not be vaccinated is online at www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/whoshouldvax.htm.

This year’s flu vaccine is well-matched to the influenza virus strains that have been spreading so far, CDC officials said.

Anyone who gets the flu after being vaccinated may have been exposed to the virus before getting the shot or during a roughly two-week period that it takes for vaccinations to become effective, the VDH’s website shows.

It is not too late to get a flu shot. Ortiz-Garcia said the health department has an immunization clinic from 1-3 p.m. on Thursdays in which the first 20 people who walk through the door are seen. Appointments for flu shots are taken on Mondays and may be available at other times, she said.

Flu shots also may still be available at local medical clinics and pharmacies.

Because flu viruses often are spread by coughing and sneezing, Ortiz-Garcia recommends that people try to keep flu from spreading by “practicing proper etiquette,” such as washing their hands frequently and coughing or sneezing into a shirt sleeve — not the hands.

Detailed information about the flu is on the state health department’s website at vdh.state.va.us/flu.

 

 
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