Mid-Columbia not yet seeing bad flu symptoms

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldDecember 4, 2012 

Flu season has come early to some parts of the U.S., but its achy and feverish symptoms aren't being seen yet in the Mid-Columbia.

Health officials Monday said suspected influenza cases have jumped in five Southern states and indicated this is the earliest start to the season in almost a decade, according to The Associated Press.

But the Benton Franklin Health District said the region has yet to see the flu hit, indicating there's still time for people to get vaccinated and protect themselves.

"If you don't get vaccinated until the virus is here, you could still get sick the next day," said Heather Hill, the district's communicable disease supervisor. "It's best to get vaccinated before the season hits."

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, the AP reports.

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.

It's the earliest start since the 2003-04 flu season, which killed 48,000 people. The primary strain circulating then is the same this year and tends to make people sicker than other types and is particularly hard on the elderly, the AP reports.

"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.

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.

But Hill said the Tri-Cities, much like the rest of Washington, often sees the flu appear after the rest of the country, with the peak occurring between January and March.

That appears to be holding true this year, as a local testing lab has found "a very small number of positive samples." Similarly, local school absentee rates still are below the 10 percent threshold the district considers a sign of a growing epidemic, Hill said. However, influenza isn't a reportable disease.

"Doctors can do rapid flu tests and not tell us," she said.

The latest report from the Washington Department of Health indicated that flu activity was up in mid-November but still below epidemic levels. Only a fraction of more than 300 potential influenza specimens tested by the state have come up positive.

Nationally, people seem better prepared to face the flu this year. 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.

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

Hill said her agency isn't able to track how many people have been vaccinated. That's because there are so many places to get vaccinated, from doctor's offices to neighborhood drugstores. However, more than 24,000 doses distributed to more than 60 health care providers in the area have been given as part of the district's Vaccine for Children program.

She stressed there's still time for people to get vaccinated if they aren't already. While most receive the vaccination, which can be an injection or nasal spray, between August and December, this year's vaccines are viable until the summer. It's just advisable to be vaccinated before a lot of people are getting sick, Hill said.

And you won't get sick from getting vaccinated. Hill said that the injection uses dead influenza virus and the nasal spray uses an extremely weakened strain of the virus. Both kickstart your immune system to start manufacturing antibodies to fight infection, but people can't get sick from it.

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.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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