Though flu season usually peaks later in the year, the number of cases of flu across the nation and in Texas is already increasing at a rapid rate, according to both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Texas Department of Health Services (DSHS). Eight children have already died in Texas, 22 nationwide. "We are seeing high levels of flu activity across Texas right now," said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS Commissioner in a recent press release. "Young children are one of the groups known to be at high risk of hospitalization or death from complications of the flu. Getting your flu shot is one of the best ways to protect them and everyone else in the community."
Flu season has kept Scott Reynolds, pharmacist at CVS Pharmacy in Dumas, pretty busy this year. He says activity has been "pretty constant" and that it has been "much worse than last year." The good news, however, is that there is plenty of vaccine this year, including the high dose vaccine that Reynolds says is recommended for people over 65.
As of the latest CDC surveillance report at the end of December, there have been 4.6 million cases of flu nationwide resulting in 39,000 hospitalizations and a total of 2100 deaths. A majority of the deaths have been people over 65 or those with compromised immune systems. "Seasonal influenza activity in the United States continues to increase and has been elevated for seven weeks," the report states. The report characterizes flu activity in Texas now as "widespread," and Texas is one of the 28 states with "high" activity.
The majority of cases have been Influenza B/Victoria viruses, which is unusual for this time of year, according to the report.
For Moore County, the Moore County Hospital District reports that, unlike some areas of the country, flu season came "later than normal this year." But, "reported cases of flu in the hospital/emergency room tripled mid-December and have remained high … physician clinics appear to be treating an average to slightly higher amount of flu cases so far," according to Ashley Smith of MCHD. "Though currently high, flu numbers have not exceeded prior years (to date), but this may be a result of the late season." Smith says both A and B strains have been seen in Moore County. The B strain has been the most dominant in the last few weeks.
"Almost all of the influenza viruses tested this season are susceptible to the four Food and Drug Administration approved influenza antiviral medications recommended for use this year," the report continues.
Health experts urge everyone over 6 months of age to get a flu shot. The shots are effective in preventing cases and minimizing the symptoms of people who do get ill. And, contrary to popular belief, they say flu shots cannot give people the flu. Most people experience no or very mild temporary side effects or reactions to the vaccination. They recommend that children, anyone over 65, pregnant women, those with chronic illnesses, caregivers, and others who are around someone with a compromised immune system especially should have the shot. At least four of the children who have died in Texas so far, did not have the vaccination, according to the DSHS. The CDC says that studies show that "flu vaccination of the mother during pregnancy can protect the baby after birth from flu infection for several months." Children younger than six months are too young for the vaccination and are at high risk for the disease.
The CDC recommends people follow some common sense measures for preventing the spread of the flu: avoid close contact with people who are ill, wash your hands often, and keep them away from your face. In addition, you should use an alcohol-based sanitizer on your hands and any contaminated surface.
If you do get sick, stay home until you are fever free without medication for at least 24 hours. If you have to go out, limit contact with others, and cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
"Any time you can't control fever or keep food and water down, a flu patient should get to either the ER or his or her health care provider," said former Moore County Hospital District ED Director/Trauma Coordinator Joshua Bailey, BSN, RN. These are signs that the disease may be becoming more serious.