By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Influenza has penetrated the region earlier than expected this year.
Kathy Harman, executive director of clinical services at Quincy Medical Group, said this area has already seen cases of flu on both sides of the river. According to a story by the Associated Press, the last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths.
"It has hit early," Harman said.
The dominant type of flu back then was the same one seen this year. One key difference between then and now is that in 2003-04, the vaccine was poorly matched to the predominant flu strain.
"What's in the vaccine this year (will treat) what's been circulating," said Carleen Orton, registered nurse and infection control coordinator at Blessing Hospital.
The good news is that the nation seems fairly well prepared, according to Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than a third of Americans have been vaccinated, CDC officials said.
The CDC recommends that individuals receive a flu vaccination as soon as the shots become available in communities, and it estimates vaccination manufacturers will produce 146 million to 149 million doses of flu vaccine. During this past season, 132.8 million doses were distributed.
Orton said the flu typically doesn't spread until after the holiday season. Holiday parties are a great time for sharing gifts, food and memories -- as well as germs.
"We all get together and pass our germs around, and we need to prevent that," Orton said.
Flu seasons vary in timing, severity and length. The effect of the epidemic depends on which flu viruses spread, if those viruses are incorporated into the vaccination and how many people receive a vaccination.
Health officials this week said suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states. The primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.
Harman explained these influenza viruses travel in droplets throughout the air. The virus infects the respiratory tract, such as lungs, throat and nose. In some cases, the flu can cause severe illness, hospitalization and death. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the United States population catches the flu each season, according to the CDC. Each year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from seasonal flu-related complications.
Harman cautioned that anyone with a weakened immune system is more susceptible to the flu. Maintaining a healthful lifestyle can boost an immune system and better prepare a person for the seasonal flu.
"If you exercise, if you do eat your fruits and vegetables, if you can maintain your immune system ... hopefully you would be better prepared to fight it off," Harman said.
Orton emphasized vaccines as the best way to combat the flu, but she also advised the public be conscious about respiratory etiquette. Covering a cough and washing hands frequently can reduce the chance of consuming the virus.
"We all touch a lot of things in our environment. Clean all the surfaces that you share," Orton said.