Medical organizations see increase in influenza

Dr. Loretta Baustian of Blessing Physician Services examines 2-year-old HarLen Derhake at the Blessing Health Center on Tuesday. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Jan. 9, 2013 10:19 am Updated: Jan. 23, 2013 11:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has classified influenza as widespread in Illinois and regional in Missouri, and medical organizations in the Quincy area have seen a spike in influenza at their offices.

Carleen Orton, a registered nurse and the infection control coordinator for Blessing Hospital, estimates the hospital has treated more than 20 cases of influenza in the past month. Donald Miller, the interim medical director of the Emergency Room at Hannibal Regional Hospital, has seen 13 cases in the past two weeks.

Illinois Department of Public Health spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said Tuesday that almost 150 people in the state have been admitted to hospital intensive care units with the flu this season. Six have died.

"It just seems like there more than we would have expected," Miller said.

Miller speculated that three in five emergency room patients arrive with flu-like symptoms. The cases are more prominent in children who have not received influenza vaccinations.

U.S. health officials have reported that the strain of influenza virus going around this year has been linked to more hospital admissions and deaths. In contrast, last year's flu season hit later and illnesses were milder.

Karen Spring, a registered nurse with the Adams County Health Department, has seen only six lab-confirmed cases. She said more seniors received vaccinations this year, and Miller noted that this year's vaccine has worked well.

"We probably have given more flu vaccine here than we probably have in the last three years," Spring said.

It isn't too late to get a flu shot, and there's no shortage of flu vaccine. This year's vaccine is a good match for the viruses circulating this year, one indication of how well the vaccine should work.

The state health department's website has a map with lists of local health departments that provide flu shots. People first should contact their doctors or other health care providers. Many drug stores also provide flu vaccinations.

Orton said the increase in influenza may have stemmed from the weather and the holiday season. As families gathered together and shared meals, they also shared the virus.

"It really went up and stayed up throughout the last month," Orton said.

Miller has treated more young children than usual, noting several of his influenza patients have been younger than 4 years old. Orton said the virus has been more prominent in young adults and children who haven't been vaccinated.

Cases of the flu typically heighten in February, Spring said. However, cases surfaced as early as October this year, which was much earlier than expected.

"The worst may be over," Orton said. "We're hoping, but we have a lot of people who have flu vaccine and people who are keeping away and avoiding transmitting the flu."

Influenza viruses travel through the air in droplets, such as from a sneeze. The virus infects the respiratory tract, lungs, throat and nose, and in some cases may 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.

More than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year from seasonal flu-related complications.

Miller advised those with flu-like symptoms to treat their symptoms or to pursue prescription antiviral medication early. He said patients may avoid hospital care as long as they're not dehydrated or struggling with persistent symptoms. Orton urged parents to have children vaccinated.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.