December 6, 2012
The flu hasn’t quite hit central Pennsylvania yet, but medical professionals are gearing up for what could be a bad year.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has seen significant increases in flu cases in the past couple of weeks, especially in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee.
The strain of flu that seems to predominate this year — the H3N2 strain of influenza A — was last seen nearly a decade ago. It is a strain that has tended to make people sicker, with higher fever, more respiratory distress and other symptoms more likely to send them to a doctor or land them in a hospital.
It will likely be hitting Pennsylvania soon, according to John Goldman, an infectious disease specialist with PinnacleHealth.
As of Dec. 1, the state Department of Health reported some increase in flu cases, especially in the western part of the state. Cases have been reported in 53 of 67 counties.
John Messmer, a family practitioner with the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said it is hard to predict the severity of a flu season because the virus tends to mutate. Sometimes a slight change in the strain can make a big difference in the body’s reaction to it.
“The message is, you just don’t know,” he said.
It’s always best to get a flu shot to be safe, he said. There are plenty available.
Goldman said he has seen a couple of cases of flu so far, and the flu season seems to be starting earlier than normal. Once it starts in one part of the country, it usually spreads quickly, he said.
Nationwide, two children have died of the illness this year. The last time the H3N2 strain struck, more than 48,000 people died in one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, according to the CDC.
But Goldman said there is an advantage this year compared to the 2003-04 flu season. This year, the type of vaccine matches well with the strains of virus. That was not the case nine years ago.
The CDC recommends flu shots for everyone over six months old, and says they are particularly important for pregnant women, anyone with a chronic illness, anyone over 65, children under 5 and people living with the elderly or others at high risk of developing complications.
More than 200,000 people are hospitalized every year due to complications of the flu, according to the CDC.
Flu vaccines are readily available. Many employers provide them, and they are available at doctors’ offices, walk-in clinics and many pharmacies.
Patient First runs 42 clinics in three states, including clinics in Mechanicsburg and the Colonial Park area. It offers flu shots on a walk-in basis from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
So far, the clinics are delivering about the same number of vaccines as last year, according to spokeswoman Dara Rees. But the numbers have increased by 73 percent this week compared to last week, after the CDC promoted National Influenza Vaccination Week Dec. 2 to Dec. 8.http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2012/12/flu_season.html?