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Flu has broad reach
Officials urge residents not to panic
Monday, January 7, 2013
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
The flu has become widespread but health officials say people should not panic, even though one virus now circulating is not contained by this year’s vaccination.
Reports on the Virginia Department of Health’s website show the flu is widespread in the state, especially in the southwest region which health officials consider to include Henry County and Martinsville.
One report shows that in the southwest, 10 percent of patients at hospital emergency departments and urgent care centers in the past 26 weeks have been treated for the flu or flu-like illnesses. That is roughly 3 percent more than in central Virginia, the second-highest region.
Widespread is the highest level of reported flu activity designated by the state health department.
A flu epidemic apparently has not occurred so far.
Reports of actual flu and flu-like illnesses are “nearing what have been peak levels during moderately severe seasons,” said Dr. Joe Bresee of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Bresee, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch of the CDC’s flu division, said he does not know how bad the current flu season will end up.
But “a lot of people are getting sick with influenza,” he said on the CDC’s website, “and we are getting reports of severe illness and hospitalizations.”
Roughly 10 percent of emergency department patients at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville in the past two months tested positive for the actual flu, said Robbie Parks, the hospital’s director of emergency services.
Parks said the number of flu patients at the emergency department seems to have declined recently but health officials expect occasional spikes in the next few months.
The number of hospitalized patients has almost doubled in the past month, said Ryan Barber, Memorial’s marketing director. He thinks that is largely due to flu cases, including ones in which patients were admitted directly by their primary care doctors instead of emergency room physicians, he said.
The state health department has no figures showing numbers of confirmed flu cases. Doctors do not always test patients for actual influenza because they treat the symptoms, not the illness itself, said Robert Parker, the department’s southwest region public information officer.
He emphasized that 10 percent of emergency department and urgent care center patients being treated for flu symptoms cannot be interpreted as 10 percent of the population having had influenza.
The Henry-Martinsville Health Department’s director, Dr. Gordon Green, and its epidemiologist, Sharon Ortiz-Garcia, could not be reached for comment.
Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. Cases range from mild to severe, and sometimes the flu can be lethal, the state health department’s 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.
The flu season generally is October to May, according to health officials.
Flu vaccinations available annually are designed to protect people from the three flu strains expected to be in heaviest circulation during a flu season.
However, a “Type A Unknown” strain is circulating which the shot does not protect against, Barber said, adding that people ages 18 and younger seem most susceptible to that strain.
The flu is spread through contact with bodily discharges. People can get the flu when someone infected sneezes or coughs on them. They also can get it by touching something with the virus on it and then touching their mouths, noses or eyes, the state health department website shows.
To avoid getting or spreading the flu, Parker recommends avoiding others who are sick, staying home when ill, washing hands frequently and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing.
It may take days for a person who gets the flu virus to become outwardly sick, so someone may be around a person who is infected and not know it, then get sick a few days after the other person becomes ill, Parks said.
Therefore, people cannot be completely sure they have avoided sick people, he indicated.
Health officials basically consider people to be over the flu — and ready to resume most normal activities — if they have no fever 24 hours after they quit taking fever-reducing drugs, websites show.
“There is nothing to suggest” that people have a higher risk of getting the flu now, even though it is widespread, Parker said, so he recommends that people go about their normal tasks.