Taking a stand against the flu

With 1,676 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza  already reported in the state as of Thursday, Jan. 10, 600 more than the entire amount of cases reported last year, the state health department and local health officials are encouraging people to get flu shots and to take precautions.

Dr. Patrick Broderick, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Danbury Hospital, stressed that these are only the cases that have been reported.

“Lots of flu cases never go fully reported,” he said. “But the barometer of cases reported are well ahead of last year.”

Dr. Broderick said Fairfield and New Haven counties have had the highest number of reported cases thus far this year.

“Unlike the H1N1 virus we had a couple years ago, this does not seem to be particularly affecting any age group. H1N1 was found more in the pediatric population. It affected children much more. This is affecting the general population,” he said.

Redding Health Officer Doug Hartline had a conference call with regional health departments and Danbury Hospital last Friday.

“Our message is to encourage the vaccine and for people to stay home if they are ill,” said Mr. Hartline.

Dr. Lawrence Leibowitz, Redding’s director of health, sent a letter to all residents and parents in Redding alerting them about flu activity in the state.

“Although no vaccine is 100% effective in preventing disease, the influenza vaccine is safe, and in most cases, it will reduce the likelihood or severity of an influenza infection should you be exposed,” the letter said. “Mild flu-like symptoms can follow a vaccination but is not the same as true influenza.”

The primary way to not contract the flu virus is to get a flu vaccination.

Children from 6 months to 18 years old, women who will be pregnant during the flu season and people at least 50 years of age should get the flu vaccine. Also, people with chronic medical conditions and those who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

“It’s not too late to vaccinate yourself,” said Dr. Broderick. “It does take two to four weeks to acquire some immunity, but the flu season will continue through February and March.”

Mr. Hartline said the concern is that numbers are high and it is early in the season.

“We’ve surpassed last year’s numbers and still have a way to go in the flu season,” he said.

The flu season can be different each year.

“Sometimes we’ve had the flu occurring in November and in April. This is the seasonal flu. But what complicates this flu is there are other flus kind of mixed in, such as the Norwalk virus,” said Mr. Hartline.

The Norwalk virus is a gastrointestinal virus that some people call the stomach flu, but it is different from the seasonal flu, he said.

Secondary prevention would be limiting contact with people who have the flu, he said. Adults or children who have the flu should not go to work or school.

“That just becomes a vector of spreading it to the community,” said Dr. Broderick. “Control your social interaction with people who are ill.”

Mr. Hartline said people should wash their hands with soap and water or use antibacterial gel.

“People should cover their cough by coughing or sneezing into the crook of their elbow, not their hands,” he said. “Also, avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.”

Wiping down cell phones and computer keyboards is also a preventative step, he said.

“If you do become ill, quarantine yourself at home so you aren’t out and about being a vector,” said Dr. Broderick.

People who have not yet gotten the flu vaccine and would like to get it may contact their primary care physician to see if the doctor administers the flu vaccine. If not, they may search for local pharmacies that do have the flu vaccine, he said.

Mr. Hartline said the town had a flu clinic in November with the Bethel Visiting Nurses Association, and now more people are calling about the flu vaccine.

“The vaccine is usually covered by insurance, but the cost without coverage is $35 for the shot and $40 for the nasal mist,” he said.

Dr. Broderick said, differing from the common cold, this flu virus is associated with fevers over 101 degrees, chills, body aches, cough, sore throat, and overwhelming fatigue as the predominant symptoms.

“For influenza it is a viral strain. There is no antibiotic for it, but there are anti-viral medications that can be prescribed within 48 hours of onset symptoms,” he said.

Tamiflu has been given to flu patients over the last couple of years, he said.

“Because of the limited amount of anti-viral medication, we do try to reserve it for elderly or immune-compromised patients,” he said.

The cure for the “average, healthy adult without diabetes, emphysema or congestive heart failure, most will do fine with bed rest, fluids, an over-the-counter fever reducer like Tylenol or Advil, and a cough suppressant,” he said. “People more at risk would get an anti-viral medication.”

Dr. Broderick is also discouraging people from going to the hospital for just the simple flu.

“The reason for that is the emergency departments are very overwhelmed with regular emergency cases, then adding the spike of flu illness and the Norwalk virus, there are longer wait times in the emergency room, which increases the number of patients in the emergency department who are a vector to spread influenza to people at a greater risk,” said Dr. Broderick.

He is advising people without other associated health conditions who have the flu to stay home, rest, take fluids, control the fever, and contact their primary care physician for further instructions.

“We don’t want a mass panic of people going to the hospital if they have the flu. It’ll worsen the situation and spread the flu to the community,” said Dr. Broderick. “Everyone is susceptible to getting the flu.”

Colleen McLeod, Redding Elementary School nurse, said there has been an increase in student absences, with the majority of absences being due to flu-like symptoms or students diagnosed with the flu.

“Today [Tuesday] we’ve had a total of 80 students absent. On a normal, non-flu season day, it’s between 20 and 30 students, so there has been an increase,” she said.

School administrators and teachers are advising students and parents to stay home if they have the flu or flu-like symptoms.

Boston, Mass., and other metropolitan areas have declared a public health emergency with the flu outbreak, said Dr. Broderick.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of that. We’re getting the awareness out to the communities and advising people to stay home if you are sick,” he said.

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