Flu activity remains high

Published 11:22 am Friday, February 18, 2011

The weather may be showing signs of spring, but the flu season is apparently far from over.

Three more flu-associated deaths during the past week are a reminder that flu activity remains widespread in North Carolina, and the N.C. Division of Public Health as well as health officials in the Roanoke-Chowan area are encouraging individuals to continue taking precautions to protect themselves from illness.

Since late December, the state has recorded 14 deaths from flu, including six among children.

“We’ve seen an increase of flu cases reported here,” said Diane McLawhorn, Co-Interim Director of the Hertford County Public Health Authority (HCPHA).

“Traditionally, January and February is a more active time for the flu in our area; we see higher clusters of patients affected,” McLawhorn continued. “We have also noted an increase in calls from our local pharmacies, asking for our assistance as they seek to increase their supply of tamiflu (prescribed for those with flu symptoms).”

McLawhorn said the HCPHA is still offering flu vaccinations free of charge at its Clinical Services office in Ahoskie. Appointments are required and can be made by calling 332-4054.

Meanwhile, over in Northampton County, Health Director Sue Gay said the number of reported cases has appeared to level off.

“We have not seen a significant increase in the number of flu cases,” Gay said. “But then again, that fact may be a bit deceiving because we cannot perform tests for the flu once a person has began taking antibiotics for flu-like symptoms.”

Gay added that of the cases reported, the “B” strain of the virus appears to be more prevalent this year. She said that’s due to a mutation of flu strains, some cases will last only three-to-four days, a much shorter version of the flu that normally affects a patient for seven-to-ten days.

The Northampton County Health Department is also offering flu vaccinations. County citizens can visit the Health Department (NC 305 North in Jackson); walk-ins are welcomed on weekdays between the hours of 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m.

“We still have an ample supply of the flu vaccine; it’s not too late to protect yourself,” Gay said.

As in the past, the vast majority of deaths this year have been in individuals who were not vaccinated.  Historically, flu vaccines have been 70 to 90 percent effective against strains that are well matched to the vaccine. More than 95 percent of strains circulating this year are well matched to the vaccine.

“It is not too late for a flu vaccination to be effective, and there is still plenty of vaccine available,” State Health Director Jeff Engel said. “You also can prevent the spread of flu through good hand washing and covering your coughs and sneezes.  Most importantly, people should stay home from work or school while they are ill.”

According to state influenza surveillance, visits to hospital emergency departments due to flu increased for the fifth week in a row, while outpatient visits declined slightly.  A number of hospitals across the state have limited visitors in response to flu concerns.  Health officials remain cautious about predicting the end of this year’s flu season.

“In typical years, we see flu activity through the month of March and often into April, so we still want folks to be protected,” Engel said.

Individuals with underlying health issues, like heart disease, diabetes and respiratory conditions, are most at risk for complications from flu.  State health officials are urging health care providers to use antiviral medications as soon as possible in high risk or hospitalized patients who have suspected or confirmed cases of flu.

Look for the most recent flu Facts and Figures at www.flu.nc.gov

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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