Influenza, particularly one virulent strain, has sent record numbers to the doctor over the past few weeks, and in spite of an early start, the flu season isn’t over.
The majority of patients diagnosed with flu suffer from the H3N2 virus, said Mary Beth Butler, public information officer with the Southeast Health District.
“There seems to be an uptick in the numbers of people with this type flu,” she said on Friday.
According to Associated Press reports, the flu season started early this year, and over the past three weeks, the illness has been noted across the country, impacting all states except Hawaii. One in every 15 doctor visits nationwide is for flu-like sickness — the highest percentage since the 2009 swine flu pandemic.
Reports from Statesboro’s East Georgia Regional Medical Center were not immediately available Friday, but hospitals and doctors’ offices everywhere have been reportedly crowded with people suffering from flu symptoms. Butler said these include “coughing, fever, a sore throat, nasal and sinus congestion, headaches, body aches and fatigue.” Some strains of the flu cause nausea and diarrhea, particularly in children and elderly people or those with compromised immune systems, she said.
“And a person with the flu will not necessarily have a fever,” she said.
The Associated Press predicts 34 million Americans will have experienced the flu by the end of the season, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the flu shot this year targets the H3N2 virus, it hasn’t proven as effective as hoped. Even though the vaccine targets the same strain as last year, the epidemic seems worse this year, and experts are yet unsure why, CDC experts said.
The winter has been colder, but there is no data supporting frigid temperatures affecting the flu virus, Butler said.
In a Georgia Health News report, public health officials said 25 Georgians had died as of Friday afternoon from the flu.
Health experts acknowledge that the vaccine has not worked as well as hoped, noting that the strain of flu hitting the country seems to be somewhat different from what vaccine makers foresaw.
Dr. Dan Jernigan, with the CDC, said there could be a change in the virus that has not yet been detected.
However, it isn’t too late to take the flu shot, and doing so may lessen the symptoms should one contract the virus, Butler said.
She advised anyone who has not yet had a flu shot, get one now. “It takes two weeks for it to become effective.”
The CDC reports the flu epidemic is “widespread,” affecting Puerto Rico and 49 states. Alabama’s public safety officials declared a public health emergency after masses of flu patients began putting a strain on medical staff.
Nationwide, the number of children who have died from the flu is now up to 30. Some hospitals, including East Georgia Regional Medical Center, placed restrictions on visitors during the flu season, as a measure to help prevent its spread.
The impact of the flu on a local level is reflected in school attendance numbers, and school officials urge parents to keep children home if they exhibit signs of the flu.
Bulloch County Schools marketing director Hayley Greene said Statesboro High School, with 150 certified faculty members, had 10 teachers absent Jan. 22 and nine out Jan. 23 and 24.
In spite of the flu epidemic, student attendance remained above 90 percent last week, with the exception of Portal Elementary and Middle/High schools, whose attendance dipped to as low as 89 percent, she said.
Out of 750 certified faculty members system wide, there were 42 sick leave absences district-wide Jan. 22; 55 on Jan. 23 and 45 on Jan. 24. “It's important to note that we have no way of knowing if the sick leave requests were due to the flu. They could be for surgeries, recuperating from medical procedures, doctor's visits, being home with a sick child, or for any illness,” she said.
Bulloch County Schools has an annual partnership with the Department of Public Health to provide a flu vaccine clinic at every school to administer the flu vaccine to students with parental permission. The vaccines are administered by health department personnel. This year only 466 students were vaccinated. Greene said.
Only 300 employees and their spouses took advantage of these clinics this year, but the school system has no data on whether students and faculty obtained a flu shot at their local doctor’s offices, she said.
Every effort is made to keep schools clean as possible and “According to the Department of Public Health, studies have shown that the flu virus can live and potentially infect a person for only 2 to 8 hours after being deposited on a surface,” she said.
There are no plans to close the schools in Bulloch County due to the flu. “Any recommendation to close schools due to an epidemic or a threatened epidemic of any disease preventable by an immunization that is required or by a widespread virus like the flu, would come from the Centers of Disease Control, our local health department or the Bulloch County Emergency Management Agency.”
Bulloch County Public Safety Director Ted Wynn said Friday there has been no discussion by his office regarding school closures due to flu.
Greene echoed Butler in advising people to take every precaution against contracting the flu. Frequent handwashing and using antibacterial gels will help reduce the chance of getting sick, they said.
Butler suggested people access Internet website flu.gov, the CDC’s flu website, for further information.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.