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Avoid the flu? You've got a shot
By Pat Caldwell
There is one common, and simple, theme among health- care professionals regarding the best way to prevent acquiring influenza: Get a flu shot.
The vaccine mantra carries added significance every year when flu season descends on America but it might convey even more importance this winter as the state endures an escalation of hospitalizations in the Portland area connected to influenza.
The rapid and early upsurge in flu-connected hospitalizations signals this year’s edition of the influenza virus — in this case the H1N1 variant — trotted onstage earlier than normal.
“Typically it is February and early March in Oregon,” said Ann Thomas, a communicable disease physician with the Oregon Public Health Division.
Currently the only places in Oregon where hospitalized influenza-connected cases are tracked are in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas Counties. That tri-county area endured an upturn in flu-related hospitalizations in late December.
“As of December 28th we’ve had 179 hospitalizations. That’s high for this time of year. It’s unusual it is so early. It’s been a quick upswing,” Thomas said.
There have been seven flu-related deaths in the Portland area.
Thomas, like a host of other medical professionals, urged people to get a flu shot.
“We have plenty of vaccine in the state,” Thomas said.
Alicia Hills, nursing supervisor at the Baker County Health Department, said there have been six laboratory confirmed cases of the flu at St. Alphonsus Medical Center-Baker City. Hills said, though, that there is an ample supply of flu vaccine available at the health department.
“I think for our county it (flu season) is just getting started,” Hills said.
The principal influenza virus this year is the same one that sparked a pandemic in 2009. The 2009 pandemic killed more than 14,000 people across the globe and was first reported in March of that year.
The good news, though, is the current vaccine is designed to protect people from the 2009 version of the flu.
While portions of Oregon appear to be weathering an upswing in flu cases, the state of Louisiana already suffered from a severe influenza onslaught that kicked off in late autumn.
“This year we started seeing flu cases five or six weeks ago,” Dr. Gerald A. Cvitanovich, chief medical officer/coroner of Jefferson Parish, La., said. Cvitanovich said typically flu does not hit the southern part of the nation this early in the influenza season.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen it start down here in the Gulf South,” he said.
Another interesting attribute to this year’s H1N1 flu virus, he said, is its capacity to strike a certain age group more often than normal.
“What’s different is it picks on young, healthy people,” he said.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, concedes that predicting the severity of a flu season can be difficult.
“If you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season. There is no telling. A few years ago it began with a bang in Colorado,” Schaffner said.
The flu virus changes from year to year, he said.
“Periodically we get small changes and then we will get a big one,” he said.
While Schaffner, who is also the immediate past-president of the nonprofit, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said it is hard to forecast the severity of a flu season he admitted this year’s influenza assault could be profound.
“It looks like it will be more serious flu this season. We are having a lot of flu in the Southeast,” he said.
Schaffner said it is important that people remember the flu virus can be a serious and dangerous enemy to the body’s immune system.
“Familiarity breeds disdain. Influenza is the virus that can take a healthy adult and put them in intensive care in 48 hours. We must do all we can to protect ourselves,” he said.
Schaffner agreed with other medical personnel that the vaccine is the soundest way to avoid the flu.
“It provides the best protection we have available,” he said.
Thomas also added that if someone does catch the flu the best course is to stay at home — and away from the workplace — until the malady runs its course.
“I stress stay home when you are sick,” she said.