Flu season 'severe' but likely at its peak, health officials say - LivewellNebraska.com
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Flu season 'severe' but likely at its peak, health officials say

It's turning out to be one of the worst seasons for influenza in recent years, Nebraska and Iowa health officials said Friday.

But the number of students and workers missing school and work isn't extraordinarily high.

Far-reaching flu in U.S.
Flu is now widespread in all but three states as the nation grapples with an earlier-than-normal season. But there was one bit of good news Friday: The number of hard-hit areas declined.

Flu was widespread in 47 states last week, up from 41 the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The only states without widespread flu were California, Mississippi and Hawaii.

The number of hard-hit states — states in which larger numbers of people were treated for flulike symptoms — fell to 24 from 29.

The nation's flu season got under way a month early, in December, driven by a strain that tends to make people sicker, leading to fears of a particularly bad flu season.

But experts said that so far, the season looks moderate.

“Only time will tell how moderate or severe this flu season will be,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said Friday.

The government doesn't keep a running tally of adult deaths from the flu, but it estimates that the flu kills 24,000 people in an average year. Nationally, 20 children have died from the flu this season.

Health officials say it's not too late to get a flu shot. The vaccine is considered a good — though not perfect — protection against getting really sick from the flu.

The vaccine is still available, but supplies may have run low in some locations, officials said. To find a shot, “you may have to call a couple places,” said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, who tracks the flu in Iowa.

— The Associated Press

Influenza activity in Iowa is high and widespread, officials said Friday. Influenza also is widespread in Nebraska, but the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Nebraska in the “low” category for influenzalike illnesses, along with South Dakota and three other Western states.

Still, said Dr. Tom Safranek, Nebraska's state epidemiologist, this is a bad year for the flu in the state.

“We think this is one of the most severe flu seasons we've seen in a long time,” he said.

When you consider the number of confirmed flu cases, flu-related hospitalizations and doctor's office visits, “we see numbers as high as we've ever seen in terms of a one-week report,” Safranek said.

One Council Bluffs school, Roosevelt Elementary near 17th Street and Avenue F, reported that more than 10 percent of its 350 students were ill Friday. The students reported a variety of symptoms — high fevers, stomach issues and strep throat-like pain. Two of the students had confirmed cases of influenza, said Diane Ostrowski, a Council Bluffs district spokeswoman.

Iowa public health officials are notified when 10 percent of an Iowa school's students are absent.

Two influenza outbreaks were reported last week at long-term care facilities in Iowa, and another Iowa school reported 10 percent or greater absenteeism because of flulike symptoms among students, Iowa officials said.

Physicians in Omaha said they are seeing plenty of cases of influenza and other ailments. Dr. Melissa St. Germain, a pediatrician with Children's Physicians, said the flu “is definitely worse than it was last year. It's probably worse than we've seen here in the last couple of years.”

St. Germain said her west Omaha clinic also is seeing a lot of children with stomach viruses and strep throat.

Dr. Kent Zhao, a family medicine physician practicing at an Alegent Creighton Clinic office in northwest Omaha, said doctors have treated quite a few people with influenza in the past two weeks, though the pace of visits had slowed this week. Many people also have come in to be treated for sinus infections, he said.

In its most recent weekly flu report, Iowa listed 141 hospitalizations at the 21 hospitals the state monitors for its reports.

That's three times higher than the number seen during typical influenza seasons, officials said.

In Nebraska, more than 13 percent of the people admitted last week to 71 reporting hospitals had influenza-related illnesses, down slightly from last week. Safranek said that is a high percentage of cases.

The state also reported another flu-related death -- an adult in northeastern Nebraska. That brings the total to three so far this season.

St. Germain and Zhao said people can get Tamiflu, an antiviral drug, to treat their flu symptoms. It's most effective when taken within the first 48 hours of the symptoms showing up. Zhao said it still can decrease the risk of complications and shorten the course of the symptoms if started later than that.

St. Germain said she has seen a shortage of the pediatric formulation of Tamiflu, so the clinic's doctors are giving it mostly to kids with asthma or other chronic illnesses.

“For most kids who are healthy,” she said, “it only shortens the duration (of symptoms) by a day.”

Area pharmacies say they have enough traditional flu vaccine shots available, but supplies of FluMist, which is a nasal spray, are low, and it sells out quickly after new shipments arrive.

The CDC said Friday that the overall effectiveness of this year's flu vaccine is 62 percent.

That, officials say, means if you were vaccinated, you're about 60 percent less likely to get a case of the flu that sends you to the doctor than if you weren't vaccinated.

Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said the vaccine's effectiveness varies, depending on the person.

“Somebody who is healthy with a good immune system, their efficacy rate may be 80 to 90 percent,” she said. “Somebody getting chemotherapy, that person's protection may be 30 or 40 percent.”

People who regularly get the flu shot also should fare better than those who rarely get one, Quinlisk said. “Somebody who has been vaccinated, like me, since 1976,” she said, “my system is going to respond very robustly” to the vaccine.

Safranek said he suspects we're nearing the peak of the influenza season. “We're not going to see a dramatic increase (next week) from what we're seeing right now.”

But the flu still will be circulating for a while, he said, so it's not too late to get a flu shot.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1109, bob.glissmann@owh.com, twitter.com/bobglissmann

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