Wednesday, January 16, 2013
By STACEY HAIRSTON - Staff Writer
The flu is now "widespread" in Virginia, especially in the southwest region, which includes Franklin County.
Measured in four levels, widespread is the highest level of activity, according to Robert Parker, public information officer for the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).
"Last year, widespread level was reached in mid to late January," said Parker. "This year, we are a month ahead of schedule."
The influenza season has come early, and hit hard, according to the Franklin County Health Department, as emergency departments continue to see large volumes of patients with influenza-like symptoms (ILI).
"Since Dec. 20, 2012, Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital (CFMH) has seen 44 cases of positive influenza A and one case of positive influenza B," said Bill Jacobsen, CEO of CFMH. "However, in the past few days, we have seen a slight decrease in the volumes of patients seen with ILI."
The Centers for Disease Control noted on Jan. 5 that influenza activity remained elevated in the U.S., but may be decreasing in some areas.
Though reports show a very high flu activity level, it is hard to calculate exactly how many cases there are because a lot of people do not go to the doctor and, if they do, not all patients are tested.
"Sometimes, what looks like the flu may not actually be the flu," Parker explained. "Not all patients are tested, and not all cases are lab-confirmed."
One report shows that in the Southwest Virginia, 10 percent of patients at hospital emergency departments and urgent care centers in the past 26 weeks have been treated for the flu or flu-like illnesses. That is roughly 3 percent more than in Central Virginia, the second-highest region.
Influenza is a contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses infecting the nose, throat and lungs. Cases range from mild to severe, and sometimes the flu can be lethal, according to the VDH website.
The flu is spread through contact with bodily discharges. People can get the flu when someone infected sneezes or coughs on them. They also can get it by touching something with the virus on it and then touching their mouths, noses or eyes, according to the website.
The flu season generally is October to May.
Annual flu vaccinations are designed to protect people from the three flu strains expected to be in heaviest circulation during a flu season. The flu vaccine is recommended by health officials for everyone over the age of 6 months.
Symptoms to watch for include fever, cough, sore throat, tiredness, chills, head and body aches, runny nose and sometimes diarrhea and vomiting. But people with such symptoms may not have influenza.
The flu can be an extremely dangerous disease, especially for certain age groups and people with the following chronic health conditions:
•Children younger than 5, but especially younger than 2 years old
•Adults 65 years of age and older
•People with chronic lung disease (such as asthma and COPD), diabetes (type 1 and 2), heart disease, neurologic conditions, blood disorders, immunosuppression and certain other long-term medical conditions, even if these conditions are well managed
•People who are morbidly obese
Other groups at increased risk of flu complications are listed at: www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/high_risk.htm.
Precautions and preventive measures can be taken to avoid the spread of flu.
The staff at CFMH recommends that residents of Franklin County:
•Get their flu vaccine, available at a primary care physician's office, most local retail pharmacies and the local health department.
•Wash your hands often, especially if you know persons had the flu where you work or in your immediate family
•If you have the flu and need to cough/sneeze, cough or sneeze into your sleeve at your elbow, not into your hands.
•Stay home from work or school if sick with fever and respiratory symptoms, and if you must go out, wear a mask.
Hospital staff further recommends that:
•Visitors under the age of 18 should not visit the hospital.
•Patients with flu-like illness should be limited to one visitor at a time.
•Visitors to any patients who are isolated with flu-like illness will be required to wear masks as requested by hospital staff.
•People with flu-like symptoms and colds should not visit the hospital.
•People with flu-like symptoms do not need to go to the hospital emergency department unless they are having difficulty breathing or are dehydrated.
•If coming to the hospital for an outpatient test or procedure, follow the guidelines provided by the hospital and limit the number of people accompanying you to the hospital.
According to health officials, it is not too late to get a flu shot.
"Please get your flu shot as soon as you can," said Jacobsen. "It is reliable for 62 percent of the strains we are seeing."
To find out more about the flu or to follow Virginia's flu activity, visit VDH's website at www.vdh.virginia.gov.