Flu season worst in years

Tips to avoid the flu bug

  • As always, the best way to protect yourself and your family is through the flu vaccine.
  • This year's vaccine includes protection against the H1N1 strain. It isn't too late to get the vaccine.
  • Parents can protect their children not only by getting their child over 6 months old vaccinated, but by getting themselves vaccinated as well.
  • If you get sick, stay home to get well to avoid passing it on to classmates and co-workers.
  • And again, good hand washing and cleansing helps avoid passing viruses on.
  • Carry hand sanitizer for you and your child when you are out and a sink isn't handy.

Source: Dr. James Fortenberry, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s pediatrician-in-chief.

If you haven’t had a flu shot this season, you might want to make that happen. Stat!

Georgia is among some 40 states reporting widespread influenza activity, said Dr. Lyn Finelli, head of surveillance and outbreak response in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza division.

Finelli attributed the illnesses to the same H1N1 strain that caused the 2009 pandemic.

“We are getting reports of serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths,” Finelli said.

While the CDC does not keep track of individual adult flu-related deaths, the agency monitors pneumonia and influenza deaths through a surveillance system call 122 Cities. That system has shown pneumonia and influenza deaths rise above the epidemic threshold for the first time this season.

“This means that pneumonia and influenza deaths in excess of the number that are expected are occurring,” Finelli said. “This elevated severity indicator reflects anecdotal reports that the agency has been getting that there has been an increasing number of people who are dying from flu complications.”

Anyone who has not had a flu shot this year should get one now, doctors said. All flu vaccines are designed to protect against H1N1, the predominant strain circulating this flu season. Also, people at high risk of serious flu complications, including pregnant women, older people and young children, should consult their doctor if they get flu symptoms.

As of this week, 37 deaths in Georgia have been attributed to flu, the highest number in years, said Dr. James Fortenberry, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s pediatrician-in-chief. That’s up from just 10 deaths at this same time last season.

“The flu every year causes deaths in adults and children, which emphasizes the importance of getting the vaccine,” he said. “The flu vaccine is the best way to prevent the flu and to reduce the chance for severe infections with flu. Last season, the flu vaccine was estimated to prevent 79,000 hospitalizations and 6.6 million illnesses.”

Fortenberry said this year’s vaccine is a good match because health officials rightly anticipated that the H1N1 strain would make a comeback.

“Most people with severe cases of the flu and who’ve died were not vaccinated,” he said.

As of Jan. 18, Finelli said that 28 pediatric deaths have been reported to the CDC from 17 states. People age 18-64, who make up nearly 62 percent of those hospitalized to date, have been the hardest hit.

Typically, between 50 and 60 percent of hospitalizations occur in people over 65, Finelli said

Finelli said that early vaccine coverage estimates released in mid-November showed that less than a third of those age 18-49 were vaccinated against the flu, nearly 10 percentage points less than the national average.

“We are also getting reports of hospitalizations and serious illness in pregnant women and those who are morbidly obese,” she said. “These two groups of people also were hard hit by the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.”

With several weeks of flu activity still ahead of us, she said we can probably expect more deaths and hospitalizations simply because there are large parts of the country that still have had little or no flu activity this season.

“That’s one reason we’re not seeing the huge flu numbers we saw 2009 from H1N1,” he said.

Fortenberry said that people with immune conditions such as cancer and asthma, women who are either pregnant or have just delivered babies are particularly at risk.

“I think the key message is the flu is still out there and it’s not too late to get the vaccine if you haven’t already,” Fortenberry said. “It takes two weeks to become immune, but it’s worth it.”

In preparation for the season, he said Children’s beefed up its nursing staff and created extra ICU beds at all its facilities.

“We’ve definitely had to use them,” Fortenberry said. “We do our best to prepare and have been able to respond to the jump in pediatric cases. This year was a very intense jump but it wasn’t as prolonged as last year.”

Last year, Fortenberry said, there were two different strains: Influenza A that hit in November and then Influenza B that followed in January.

“This year, it seems to be one strain and hopefully that’s all we’ll see,” he said. “It looks like it may be slowing some but we are keeping our eye on the ball because we know a second strain could follow.”