PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

December 6, 2012

Flu season kicks off early in Southeast Texas

Brooke Crum
The Port Arthur News

— The peak of the flu season may be several weeks away, yet the flu season in Port Arthur is already under way.

The Port Arthur Health Department has seen an increase in flu cases since November, said Judith Smith, interim director of the health department. So far, they have seen about 48 flu cases, type A and B, she said.

The health department has also seen an upward shift in influenza-like illnesses in the area, but no deaths have been reported, Smith said.

While the health department offers flu vaccines for $10, Smith said it has not been as busy as usual this year. Even at the department’s satellite clinics, where they offer on-site vaccinations, there has not been a large turnout, she said.

At least not compared to 2009. Smith said the health department saw “massive amounts of people” lining up to receive flu vaccines in 2009, but that has not been the case this year.

“When they don’t hear a lot about it, people get lax,” Smith said.

She still encouraged anyone who had not received the vaccine to go ahead and get one. The city had ordered 1,500 vaccines and had some left for anyone 6 months or older who needed to be vaccinated.

Although the city has seen some cases of the flu this year, the Port Arthur Independent School District was in the clear, said Kristyn Hunt, media specialist for the school district.

The district required all students to register before the onset of the school year and offered an easy way to register and receive free flu shots, among other things, at its One Stop Registration event in July. Hunt said that might be one reason why the district has not been bombarded by sick students.

Flu season is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade around the rest of the country, as well — and it could be a bad one.

Health officials on Monday said suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.

“It looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The good news is that the nation seems fairly well prepared, Frieden said. More than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, and the vaccine formulated for this year is well-matched to the strains of the virus seen so far, CDC officials said.

Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn’t happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations are also rising earlier than usual, and there have already been two deaths in children.

Hospitals and urgent care centers in northern Alabama have been bustling. “Fortunately, the cases have been relatively mild,” said Dr. Henry Wang, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Parts of Georgia have seen a boom in traffic, too. It’s not clear why the flu is showing up so early, or how long it will stay.

“My advice is: Get the vaccine now,” said Dr. James Steinberg, an Emory University infectious diseases specialist in Atlanta.

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 type of flu back then was the same one seen this year.

One key difference between then and now: In 2003-04, the vaccine was poorly matched to the predominant flu strain. Also, there’s more vaccine now, and vaccination rates have risen for the general public and for key groups such as pregnant women and health care workers.

An estimated 112 million Americans have been vaccinated so far, the CDC said. Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older.

On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.

Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

A strain of swine flu that hit in 2009 caused a wave of cases in the spring and then again in the early fall. But that was considered a unique type of flu, distinct from the conventional strains that circulate every year.

Fight the flu by:

•bringing your own pen with you to the bank, grocery store and even to use the ATM. What a sick person touches gets infested with germs, including money, mail, light switches, etc.

•using paper. Replace hand towels in bathrooms with paper towels, which do not horde germs the way damp towels do.

•wiping down grocery carts. A recent study found two-thirds of shopping cart handles tested positive for fecal bacteria at a higher level than the average public restroom.

•cleaning with a disinfectant. Viruses and bacteria can live up to 18 hours on any given object.

•washing hands. Use soap, warm water and scrub long enough to say the alphabet or sing “Happy Birthday.” Recent studies show plain soap and water works just as well as antibacterial soap.

•using a hand sanitizer. Use a sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol and clean under the fingernails, where germs hide, after washing your hands or touching something someone else has handled.

Source: Doctors Express

email: bcrum@panews.com

twitter: broocrum