Officials predicting especially active flu season
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - It looks like the flu wants to get a jump on the holiday season.
Although flu season typically does not hit until January or February, Kanawha-Charleston Health Department Director 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."
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control share Gupta's worries. According to a news release from the agency earlier this week, there have been significant 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 most likely were caused by the flu and not other viruses.
Other than the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, this is the earliest the number of cases in the United States has risen above normal levels since the 2003-04 season, according to the CDC. Last year, that did not happen nationwide until mid-March.
Most 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. The department charges $36 for flu shots but also bills many insurance companies, according to its website.
Patients also could visit their doctor, and many drugstores offer walk-in flu shots.
Gupta said the health department already has given 13,000 shots through walk-in clinics at its downtown headquarters and Kanawha County schools. Those school clinics will wrap up next week.