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Flu Season: Widespread or Not?

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Well, we knew it was coming and it looks like influenza season is arriving in many parts of the country. Interestingly, the CDC reports that “influenza activity decreased in several indicators in the last week, but it is unlikely that influenza activity for the season has peaked.”   With that being said there are still 17 states that are reporting widespread flu activity including New York, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Texas.

Looking at the current flu statistics, about 25% of the specimens being tested by the CDC for influenza were positive, with the majority of the specimens being positive for Influenza A (H3N2) and fewer for H1N1 and Influenza B.  The good news about these statistics is that this year’s flu vaccine contains the strains of flu that are circulating. In other words, the flu vaccine was a good match this year.  Even when the vaccine is a good match we know that the vaccine is not 100% effective.

So, there will be some people who get the flu despite the fact they received the vaccine. This should not deter you from getting the vaccine even at this time of year as there is still a lot of winter ahead and it is hard to predict if and when the flu might pick up momentum.  For those of you that say “why get the flu vaccine if it may not fully protect me from getting the flu?” Well, I am not a believer in buying lottery tickets (my husband is), but if someone told me that I had between a 70-90% chance of winning the lottery I would buy a ticket. That is about the same chance you have of not getting the flu if you  are vaccinated.  Pretty good odds. At the same time, if you are vaccinated and happen to be one of the “unfortunate” ones to still get the flu, the flu in theory should be a bit milder.

I must say, and I hate to jinx myself, but I am not seeing as much flu as some seasons and the kids (and a few adults) have not seemed as ill as some years.  Again, that is just my own experience to date, and I hope it continues like this for the next 8 weeks.

Nevertheless, the recommendation remains that all children 6 mos. of age and older get the flu vaccine. We know that younger children have a greater tendency to develop complications from the flu. The flu is not something that you “want to get”, so vaccination is important.  To date, during the 2010-2011 flu season there have been 10 pediatric deaths reported in the U.S.  There have been 5 pediatric deaths secondary to Influenza A (H3N2), 3 secondary to Influenza B, and 2 from Influenza A that was not sub-typed.

The symptoms of the flu remain the same,  abrupt onset of fever, chills, muscle aches (in older children and adults), cough, congestion, and sore throat. In young children there is sometimes vomiting but this is not a typical flu symptom.  Some people refer to vomiting and diarrhea as the “tummy flu”, but this is usually due to other viruses which are totally unrelated to influenza. Remember too that those who get the flu are shedding viral particles before they even know that they are sick.

I often hear, “how could I have gotten the flu”.  All it takes is standing next to someone who sneezes or coughs in the elevator, or classroom or grocery store.  Most of us cannot track our exposure.

Children are huge vectors too as they do not yet know how to cover their mouths or wash their hands after coughing or sneezing, and they touch everything.  There is not a mother out there that can keep a toddler’s hands germ free! Impossible scenario despite every type of antibacterial gel available.

So, if you and your children are not yet immunized against this year’s flu, run don’t walk and get the vaccine.  Let’s hope that this year’s flu season will be mild, but there is no one who can look in his or her crystal ball to know. Only time will tell!

That’s your daily dose for today. We’ll chat again tomorrow.

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