Behind the heads: Susan Bowler: How bad is this flu season?

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Q. Is this year's flu epidemic really different or worse than in recent years past? Can you provide any statistics or other information to describe this year's epidemic?

A. Current surveillance data indicate that the United States is experiencing an early influenza season that could be more severe than in the past three years. The United States and some European countries are experiencing influenza-associated deaths earlier than usual. The majority of the influenza viruses identified in the United States so far this winter have been type A (H3N2) viruses, which historically have been associated with relatively severe influenza seasons .

Q. Are rumors true that the strain of flu going around is not covered by the flu shot, so even people who were immunized are at risk?

A. Influenza viruses are changing all the time, and each year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tries to figure out how flu viruses are going to change. Vaccine effectiveness depends, in part, on the match between vaccine strains and circulating viruses. This year, CDC did not get a perfect match, so the A (H3N2) strain in this year's vaccine is slightly different than the one being identified in sick people.

However, laboratory studies indicate that the vaccine should provide some cross-protection against the circulating strain. The other two influenza viruses in this year's vaccine are being seen nationwide on a smaller scale. The "B" virus typically comes later in the year and is less severe.

Q. How hard has Routt County been hit by the flu, in comparison with the state as a whole?

A. Statewide, there have been 6,306 reported cases of influenza, compared with 2,681 cases reported for the whole season last year.

Locally, Yampa Valley Medical Center reported 43 positive influenza cases as of Dec. 1 that came through their emergency room. In the same time period, The Memorial Hospital in Craig reported 50 positive cases.

All of our local physician offices are reporting seeing numerous ill patients with flu-like symptoms, but because they are not required to report their positive influenza test to their local public health department (VNA), I am unable to get definite numbers. There have been no reported deaths related to influenza in either community to date.

This year, parents are seeking medical care for their ill children more often, in part because of the news reports about the flu and flu-related deaths. .

Q. Speaking strictly for the Visiting Nurse Association, have more people gotten immunizations this year than in recent years past? Have many local businesses taken advantage of on-site immunization clinics? Have residents taken advantage of flu-shot clinics?

A. At the VNA, we are seeing an increase in the number of children we are immunizing this year compared to last year. In the past two years, the recommendations from CDC have changed regarding children. In the past, children were not designated as "high risk." But two years ago, based on CDC's findings on the number of children, especially those younger than 2, who were hospitalized for complications related to influenza, Colorado began to recommend all infants 6 months to 23 months be immunized, and older children with certain medical conditions be immunized.

Many local businesses called the VNA requesting on-site clinics for their employees. Because of limited staff at the VNA, we have found that using vouchers for employees and having them come into the office at their convenience has worked. As of Thursday, we had given 4,200 flu shots.

More employers this year are paying for their staff to be immunized. Doctors offices have offered flu shots at a price lower than ours, so many of our former clients have taken advantage of the cost savings and gone to those clinics. Steamboat Medical Group reported this week that it gave about 1,200 flu shots last year, and this year it has given close to 3,000.

Q. Who has been hardest hit locally by this year's epidemic? Children, the elderly, or have people of all ages been diagnosed?

A. Because parents are bringing more of the ill children into the emergency room and doctors offices, it appears that more children are getting ill this year.

However, our local schools have not reported significant absentee rates on a whole as of yet. And, according to school nurse Dot Haberlan, while schools are seeing ill kids, they aren't seeing a large amount of kids with flu symptoms. Instead, there are colds, sinus infections, strep throat and stomach illness that are making kids quite sick. The bottom line is, yes, the flu is out there, but do not panic.

Q. What should people do to reduce their chances of contracting or spreading the flu?

A. n Do not send your child to school sick.

n Do not go to work sick.

n Be diligent in hand washing for all family members. If unable to wash, use a hand sanitizer.

n Get a flu shot, it is not too late.

n Sneeze into your elbow, not your hand.

n See your provider if you think you are getting ill. There are antiviral drugs that can be used on patients one year and older that can lessen the effects of the flu.

Dr. Ned Calonge, the state's chief medical officer has advised parents to call their health care provider if a child:

n Has a high fever that does not respond to over-the-counter fever medications. (DO NOT give your child aspirin or medications containing salicylates as these may case Reyes syndrome)

n Has a fever that lasts longer than three to five days or returns.

n Is listless or has no interest in playing, especially after his or her fever has come down.

n Is inconsolable, that is irritable and can't be calmed down

n Is not drinking fluids or not keeping fluids down.

n Has difficulty breathing, or exhibits fast, hard breathing.

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