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Flu season hits early, may peak in December

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It looks like the flu wants to get a jump on the holiday season.

Though flu season typically does not hit until January or February, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department director Dr. Rahul Gupta said it may peak in December this year.

Gupta said flu activity is increasing across the state. Brandon Merritt, the health department's epidemiologist, said there has been a "definite, sudden jump in cases" in Kanawha County.

"We saw about a threefold increase in one week," he said.

Gupta said there are also increasing reports of "influenza-like illnesses," which are suspected flu cases that have not been confirmed by lab tests.

"There will probably be a several-fold increase in the next coming weeks," he said. "At least on the surface, this looks to be a bad flu year."

The Centers for Disease Control share Gupta's worries. According to a news release from the agency earlier this week, there have been signiciant increases in flu activity in the last two weeks.

Forty-eight states and Puerto Rico have reported laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza, according to a CDC surveillance report published Nov. 30. The United States also reached its "influenza-like illness" baseline during the week of Nov. 24, which indicates those suspected illnesses are most likely caused by the flu and not other viruses.

Other than the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, this is the earliest the U.S. has hit its ILI baseline since the 2003-2004 season, according to the CDC. Last year, the country did not hit the baseline until mid-March.

Msot of the confirmed cases nationwide are H3N2, a flu strain "typically associated with more severe seasons," the CDC reported.

Gupta said all of Kanawha County's confirmed flu cases have tested positive for H3N2, a subset of the Influenza A virus. Fortunately, it appears this year's flu vaccine does a good job at fighting H3N2.

"The flu shot seems to be a good match this year. The strains that are in the shot seem to cover this strain very well," Gupta said.

Gupta pointed out the shots won't do patients any good if they don't get vaccinated, however. And although flu season is about to be in full swing, he said it's not too late to get a flu shot.

 "It takes up to two weeks to develop your immunity," he said. "If there's a time to get your flu shot, now's the time."

Certain age groups are at high risk: children under 5 years old, and especially those under 2, elderly people over 65, patients with chronic conditions and pregnant women.

Gupta said people who spend a lot of time around day care centers, nursing homes, schools or hospitals also are at high risk of getting the flu.

"If your child goes to a day care, you've got to make sure they're protected," he said.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department hosts daily walk-in flu shot clinics from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Patients also could visit their doctor, and many drugstores offer walk-in flu shots.

Gupta said the health department has already given 13,000 shots through walk-in clinics at its downtown headquarters and Kanawha County schools. Those school clinics will wrap up next week.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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