Flu or not, it's not fun

By Chris Collins January 16, 2013 10:00 am

S. John Collins / Baker City Herald Fears about the flu, and flu-like illnesses, have been rising in recent weeks.
S. John Collins / Baker City Herald Fears about the flu, and flu-like illnesses, have been rising in recent weeks.
By Chris Collins

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Despite serious outbreaks of the flu in other parts of the country — including 20 child deaths — the condition is less serious in Oregon where no child has yet died of the flu.

Though the illness is termed “widespread” throughout Oregon, the number of people suffering with the flu is rated as “moderate” in the most recent update from the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division.

 Alicia Hills, nursing supervisor at the Baker County Health Department, said no “reportable” cases of the flu have come to her attention in Baker County.

But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t suffering with flu-like symptoms, she said.

Reports to the Health Department are required only in the case of deaths of children younger than 18 or if it appears that the illness is a communicable disease that could pose a public health risk, Hills said.

The flu season is officially under way in Oregon, however.

That is determined when the statewide percentage of doctor visits for flu-like symptoms tops 1.5 percent. As of the first week of January, 2.8 percent of outpatient visits statewide were flu related, according to the state Health Division.

Those statistics are generated by a network of 22 health-care providers across the state who voluntarily report the number of patients with flu-like symptoms and the total number of patient visits each week during flu season, according to the Health Authority.

The report describes “influenza-like illness” as a fever of at least 100 degrees, and cough or sore throat.

Another set of statistics is generated by reporting of the diagnosis for discharged patients from OCHIN Inc., 22 member organizations of federally qualified health centers and rural health centers in Oregon representing 103 clinics statewide. That rate of influenza-like symptoms was 4.8 during the last week of 2012.

In the Eastern Region, which includes Baker, Union, Wallowa, Umatilla, Morrow, Grant, Harney and Malheur counties, the percentage of outpatient visits for flu symptoms was 1.0 and the rate for the OCHIN patients was 11.0.

“While we are seeing some uptick of flu, particularly H3N2, we are not seeing the rates that other states, particularly those on the East Coast and in the South, are experiencing,” Dr. Richard Leman, public health physician in the Health Division’s Acute and Communicable Disease Prevention Section, said in the report published Friday.

“We can make sure things don’t get worse by taking action now. People can protect themselves and their families by getting vaccinated and washing their hands regularly.”

Health-care providers continue to tout flu vaccines as the best way to prevent the flu or to ease the symptoms for those who get sick with the severe viral infection. An antiviral prescription drug also is available for those diagnosed with the flu, but the drug is not a substitute for the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flu vaccine is still available in Baker County despite shortages in other parts of the state. And it’s not too late to seek the prevention the vaccine provides. 

Flu season begins in October and can last up through May, peaking in January or February, according to the CDC. Leman said less than half of Oregon’s population has been vaccinated.

Flu vaccines are available at the Health Department at 3330 Pocahontas Road from 8 a.m. to noon and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Some walk-ins are accepted but appointments guarantee that a nurse will be available, Hills said. To schedule an appointment, call 541-523-8211.

Baker City pharmacies that provide flu vaccines include Bi-Mart, Rite Aid, Safeway and Albertsons.

The CDC recommends that everyone age 6 months and older get an annual flu shot.

Whether flu sufferers seek medical advice depends on each patient and his or her age and other underlying medical conditions, Hills said. She said most Baker City doctors welcome calls to their offices where the doctors’ nurses will consult with patients and help them decide what type of treatment might be needed.

The CDC recommends a trip to the doctor’s office if the sick person experiences any of these symptoms: difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, purple or blue discoloration of the lips, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, sudden dizziness, confusion, severe or persistent vomiting, seizures and flu-like symptoms that improve but then return with fever and worse cough.

To help relieve symptoms, health-care providers recommend that sick people:

• Get plenty of rest.

• Drink clear fluids like water, broth, sports drinks, or electrolyte beverages to prevent becoming dehydrated.

• Place a cool, damp washcloth on their foreheads, arms, and legs to reduce discomfort associated with a fever.

• Put a humidifier in their room to make breathing easier.

Hills said one question she’s  asked frequently is how long workers should wait before returning to work after a bout of the flu.

 The CDC also recommends these preventive actions:

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. This will block the spread of droplets from your mouth or nose that could contain germs. 

• Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Germs spread this way.

• Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

• If you or your child gets sick with a respiratory illness like flu, limit contact with others as much as possible to help prevent spreading illness.

More information is available by visiting these websites: www.flu.gov; www.cdc.gov; and http://public.health.oregon.gov/PreventionWellness/FluPrevention.Here’s her advice: “Usually after you’ve no longer had a fever for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medication.”