“This (type of outbreak) often happens when a new strain of influenza emerges,” said Dr. Laura Larson, a board-certified infectious diseases specialist and medical director of Infection Prevention for Tanner Health System. “Few have been exposed to the new strain, so almost no one has immunity to it and that’s why more people get sick from it.”
Local school officials are not seeing any increases in absences due to flu since returning from the holidays, but one system reported a slightly higher level back in November.
“We saw a notable increase in absences in November, which parents and students self reported as flu cases,” said Wina Low, director of student services, Carrollton City Schools. “We’re back to our average attendance levels now, with nothing unusual for this time of year.”
“We’re having no major problems right now due to the flu,” said Elena Schulenburg, spokeswoman for Carroll County Schools.
Larson said the best line of defense is practicing good personal hygiene and a getting a flu shot.
“Make sure you get a flu shot,” said Larson. “Even though we’re in the midst of flu season, it still provides a great deal of protection. It’s a misconception to think that getting a flu shot causes you to get the flu. The shots contain deactivated (dead) virus. Even if you contract a strain of flu for which the vaccine does not protect against, having the flu shot can still keep the symptoms from being as severe and can help reduce the risk of complications.”
Larson said that the flu has not been hitting any one population worse than another. This year’s flu season started early and has been aggressive, with instances of influenza widespread in 41 states, including Georgia and Alabama, she said.
She said good hand hygiene also remains important. Frequently washing your hands can help kill influenza viruses that might otherwise enter the body when you touch your mouth or nose. Also, if you’re coughing or sneezing, try not to cough or sneeze on your hands. Instead, cough or sneeze into the bend of your elbow. That method has been shown to have a very positive effect on reducing the spread of influenza and other viruses.
“Also, it’s important to remember to be considerate,” said Larson. “If you have flu-like symptoms — a fever, cough, sore throat, congestion, etc. — stay away from large groups of people and people who are more susceptible to the flu, like those who may have compromised immune systems. You may have to call in to work or miss school, but that’s an important way that we as a community can help protect each other.”
She cautioned that if a person experiences what they think could be the flu, begins to feel better, then becomes ill again, it could be important to follow up with a physician.
“Pneumonia often follows the flu and pneumonia can become very serious,” Larson said. “It’s called post-influenza pneumonia and it’s something people who have the flu or think they have the flu need to watch for.”
In its Friday report, the Georgia Department of Public Health said flu activity is widespread throughout the state, but only two flu-related deaths have been reported so far. Both victims were adults.
“We’re seeing some decrease in flu activity, but we’re still at epidemic level and the flu is unpredictable,” Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of the Division of Health Protection, Georgia Department of Public Health, said. “We’re getting reports of more severe flu effects in neighboring states, including a number of deaths. Peak flu season usually doesn’t happen until late January or early February, so we may not have seen the worst yet.”
O’Neal said the most recent flu report may have been lower because many doctors’ offices were closed for the holidays.”
Nancy Nydam, spokesperson for Georgia Department of Public Health, said flu is not a reportable illness to CDC, but state officials track it by reports sent from volunteer doctors and hospitals who serve as sentinel providers. She said the flu is widespread around the state and Carroll County “doesn’t appear to be any greater or lesser than anywhere else” for flu activity in the state.
“The predominant strain of flu we’re seeing this year very closely matches the vaccine, so it’s quite effective in fighting off the flu,” Nydam said.
Larson encouraged people to rely on well-researched advice from experts, such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which offers a website, www.flu.gov, that provides a lot of useful information on preventing the flu, advice on getting a flu shot, symptoms to look out for and more.
According to The Associated Press, flu is widespread in at least 40 states from New England to the Rocky Mountains. On Wednesday, Boston declared a public health emergency, with the city’s hospitals counting about 1,500 emergency room visits since December by people with flu-like symptoms.
On the average, 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC, but the figure is only as estimate since the agency doesn’t keep a running tally of adult flu deaths each year, only for children. Some state health departments keep records.
Flu usually peaks in mid-winter. Symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people, usually children, suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia and other severe complications.