Flu now widespread in Washington

BY THE TRI-CITY HERALDJanuary 12, 2013 

Fever, cough and headache caused by the flu are now widespread in Washington, the state Department of Health said Friday.

Previously, the flu outbreaks in the state had been considered regional, which typically means that flu was being reported in less than half the state. But Friday the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said all but three states -- California, Hawaii and Mississippi -- now have widespread flu.

Widespread flu is not unusual, but the activity appears to be increasing and could be worse than the previous two seasons, which were considered mild, said Donn Moyer, Department of Health spokesman.

Flu cases are increasing in the Tri-Cities, but are not close to the usual seasonal peak nor are they are at the level seen in Western Washington or much of the rest of the country, said Dr. Amy Person, the health officer for Benton and Franklin counties.

The increase in flu cases is somewhat early for the Tri-Cities, where the season has peaked in recent years in February or March. However, the health department is not hearing from health care providers that the illness is more severe than usual, Person said.

A few pharmacies in the Tri-Cities have temporarily run out of the flu vaccine. But many pharmacies and doctor's offices still have it, and the health department also is giving flu shots. Call 460-4200 for more information or to schedule an appointment.

Contrary to myth, people cannot catch the flu from the flu vaccine, Person said. The virus in the vaccine is not live and cannot reproduce and cause an infection, she said. However, some people may feel somewhat achy after the shot as the body has an immune response to the vaccine.

If people get sick after the shot, that's a coincidence, she said.

"We have our fingers crossed people will get shots and do the other things to protect yourself such as hand-washing," Moyer said.

CDC officials said a recent study of more than 1,100 people has concluded the current flu vaccine is 62 percent effective. That means the average vaccinated person is 62 percent less likely to get a case of flu that's bad enough to require a trip to the doctor, compared to people who don't get the vaccine.

That's in line with how effective the vaccine has been in other years.

The flu vaccine is reformulated annually, and officials say this year's version is a good match to the viruses going around.

Six people have died of the flu so far this season in Washington, including one child, but none of those cases was in Eastern Washington. There were 18 flu deaths in 2011-12 and 36 the previous year. The most state deaths were 98 in the swine flu season of 2009-2010.

"Every one of these deaths is tragic, especially one that happens to have been a child," Moyer said. "But the numbers are not unusual."

The department reported the first three deaths in December: a 12-year-old Pierce County boy, and a man in his 80s and a woman in her 70s in King County. Three more December deaths were reported last week by Snohomish County: a Bothell woman in her 40s, an Everett woman in her 80s and an Edmonds woman in her 80s.

Those are lab-confirmed flu deaths. Officials believe the flu is a complicating factor in more deaths.

Elsewhere in the nation, flu outbreaks appear to have peaked and are on the decline in some states.

The hardest hit states fell to 24 from 29, with large numbers of people getting treated for flu-like illness. Dropped off that list were Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina in the South, the first region hit this flu season.

"Only time will tell how moderate or severe this flu season will be," said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden in a teleconference with reporters.

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.

Health officials recommend that people with the flu stay home for at least 24 hours after the fever is gone to avoid spreading the virus. Rest, liquids and over the counter medicines are common treatments. Antibiotics don't work against a viral illness, but some prescription medications can ease symptoms.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report

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