Flu activity continues to dip in Georgia but remains high

Flu activity in Georgia continues to decline — albeit ever so slightly — but remains high.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said 3.9 percent of patient visits to doctors were for the flu during the week ending Jan. 19. That's down from 4 percent of visits the week before, according to the most recent report released on Friday.

While the steady decline during the past few weeks is encouraging, healthcare experts say flu activity is unpredictable, and the season could tick back up in the coming weeks.

One new development this flu season is, for the first time in 20 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a new flu medication to help with symptoms.

The medication, called Xofluza (Baloxavir marboxil), was designed to reduce the duration of flu symptoms, if taken within 48 hours of onset. It can be prescribed to patients 12 and older, according to the FDA.

In this December photo, TaJuana Ray, curriculum coordinator of pre-K at Kids R Kids, operates a ZONO Sanitizing cabinet at the Learning Academy day care center in Marietta. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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The big difference between this medication and Tamiflu, the well-known antiviral that has been around for decades, is that you only need to take a single dose to treat the flu. Tamiflu must be taken twice daily for five days.

Since the flu season began in early October, the illness has killed seven people in Georgia — six adults and a child — and there have been 814 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta due to flu symptoms.

After flu rates climbed upward before Christmas, they have been steadily dropping.

In the most recent data set from the Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia is one of a handful of states, including Kentucky, Colorado and New Jersey, experiencing high rates of the flu. But the overall trend line is moving in the right direction. Flu activity levels have declined in several states including Florida, Tennessee and Ohio, according to the CDC report released Friday.

There was an alarming spike in flu cases in late November and December, but it appears as though the season is shaping up to be a moderate one.

MORE: 6 vaccinations you should get as an adult

Dr. Terri McFadden, associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, credited the school holiday break for helping bring down the numbers.

Even so, she said it’s still possible to see another uptick in flu activity.

“We are all sitting on pins and needles waiting to see if there might be a second phase — hoping we won’t, but gearing up in case we do,” said McFadden, who is also president of the American Academy of Pediatrics-Georgia Chapter.

Kids R Kids Learning Academy day care students wash their hands following snack time at the center in Marietta recently. Experts say hand-washing is a key way to prevent spreading germs and getting sick. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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McFadden said it’s important to remember antiviral drugs are not a substitute for getting a flu vaccine. Experts still urge that you get the flu vaccine to reduce your chance of infection.

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About half of Americans get annual flu shots. In recent years, flu vaccination rates have been on the rise, standing at about 60 percent for children and about 42 percent for adults.

“We have a long flu season still ahead of us, and I think the message is it’s never too late to get your flu shot,” she said.

Georgia’s 2017-18 flu season didn’t subside until the end of April. It claimed at least 154 lives statewide and led to more than 3,000 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta. Local health officials called it the worst outbreak in decades.

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Each year, 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu. This costs an estimated $10.4 billion a year in direct medical expenses and an additional $16.3 billion in lost earnings annually, according to the CDC.

This past October, Xofluza (Baloxavir marboxil) became the first medication approved to treat influenza in 20 years.

Here's what you need to know about this medication: Xofluza is approved for the treatment flu in people 12 years and older (weight 88.18 pounds or greater) who have had flu symptoms for less than 48 hours. It is available by prescription only.

The CDC does not recommend Xofluza for pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers.

Xofluza works by stopping the flu virus from growing.

Xofluza is a pill, taken as a single-dose tablet by mouth.Antiviral medications have side effects.

Speak with your health-care professional to discuss the risks and benefits.

Xofluza is not a substitute for the flu vaccine.

SOURCE: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Centers Disease Control and Prevention.