Flu hospitalizations and deaths climb in Georgia

The flu is spreading fast this year. The predominant strain is one of the harsher ones. And with bitterly cold weather bringing people to gather inside in crowded conditions, the flu season is raging.

Influenza activity has increased sharply in Georgia and across the United States during the past couple of weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the first week of the year, which runs from Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, there were 56 hospitalizations in metro Atlanta due to influenza, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. That's up slightly from 51 hospitalizations during the previous week. There have also been five confirmed influenza-related deaths in the state this flu season, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Of those who died from flu-related deaths, all five were older adults. The state agency didn't provide specific ages.

The flu season may be close to peaking in Georgia and across the country but could continue for many more weeks, according to officials with the Georgia Department of Public Health and CDC.

This season, the predominant flu strain is H3N2, a form of influenza A. This flu strain is associated with more severe illness, especially among children and the elderly. This strain is included in this year’s flu vaccine, but viruses can change and this particular strain tends to mutate more than other strains.

The H3N2 strain also circulated during the 2014-2015 season, another severe season for flu. The CDC said Friday that so far this year, the hospitalization rate for the flu is slightly below the 2014-2015 rate.

Vaccine effectiveness typically ranges from 40 to 60 percent in a good year. It’s unclear just how effective this year’s vaccine is. Information on how effective the vaccine is typically is not available until the flu season is over.

There’s still time to take precautions to prevent getting the contagious virus infection often associated with a high fever and body aches making you so exhausted and sick you have no choice but to stay in bed. Experts say even if the vaccine is not a perfect match, the vaccine can still help lessen the severity of the flu, and reduce the chance of experiencing severe complications from the flu. Getting a vaccine can also reduce the length of the flu if you do get sick.

"Number one if you have not gotten a flu shot, it is absolutely not too late," said Dr. Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist with the Georgia Department of Public Health.

And then, she said, there are tried-and-true flu prevention techniques — frequently wash your hands with soap and warm water. (If water is not available, alcohol-based gels are the next best thing.) If you are sick, cover your coughs and sneezes with the inside of your elbow or a tissue that is then discarded. Also, don’t go to work, and don’t have your children go to school, when sick.

Drenzek said if you do get sick and think you may have the flu, contact your health care provider right away, particularly if you or family members are at high risk for serious flu complications — young children (under the age of 5), those over 65, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or asthma. Even young, healthy adults should call their doctor if symptoms don’t improve or get worse after three to four days of illness. There are antivirals such as Tamiflu or Relenza that can help treat the flu, but the medication needs to be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms to be effective.

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Dr. Andi Shane, associate professor of pediatric infectious disease and global health at Emory University of School of Medicine and medical director of hospital epidemiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, offers her key strategies for flu prevention:

— If you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, get it now. It’s not too late to get a flu vaccine. Flu strains usually circulate in Georgia through mid-April. With three or four strains in the flu vaccine, it can be beneficial at any time during the flu season. Everyone 6 months of age and older needs a seasonal flu vaccine every year. Some children younger than 8 years of age will need two doses of flu vaccine spaced one month apart to be fully protected if this is their first year to get a flu vaccine.

— If you are sick, stay away from others. The flu is spread by droplets. Reducing opportunity for physical contact reduces opportunities for the flu to be spread. Flu sufferers should be free of a fever, without the use of a fever reducer, for at least 24 hours before returning to school or work.

— Wash your hands. Practice good hand hygiene — wash your hands with soap and water or a hand-sanitizing product liberally — before and after eating, going to the bathroom, spending time in high-traffic settings such as the mall or airport.

— Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to help prevent the spread of the flu. Use a tissue or cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or arm.

— Take care of yourself. To help your immune system be in good enough shape to fight off the flu and other germs, eat a balanced diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise.