Local health care officials are expecting a mild flu season this year based on confirmed cases to date, but they are still encouraging people to get vaccinated, given the unpredictability of the contagious virus.
Hospital officials say the dearth of cases halfway through the season — most are reporting zero to one or two — is likely a result of the widespread attention the H1N1 virus has drawn in the last two years. An outbreak of the virus, which was publicly referred to as swine flu, caused populations to be vigilant in flu prevention and receiving vaccinations, they say.
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting this week that influenza activity across the nation is beginning to increase and people who haven’t done so should get vaccinated as soon as possible.
“The flu is predictable, but unpredictable at the same time,” said Ellis Hospital Emergency Services Director John Voight. “We do our best to guess, so that normally by February we have a good read on what the flu season is going to be like. And this is one of the mildest seasons we’ve had in years.”
Not too late
Vaccination sites can be found at www.flu.gov by using its Flu Vaccine Finder tool.
It’s predictable in that seasonal influenza activity can begin as early as October and continue as late as May. Increases in activity across the nation are expected in coming weeks based on previous experience, according to the CDC, which reports that cases typically peak in February and March.
It can manifest as a mild illness, with symptoms including runny noses, fevers and coughs. Or it can manifest itself severely, sometimes resulting in death among the vulnerable. These include people over the age of 65, younger than 5, pregnant women and those with chronic medical conditions.
But the flu is unpredictable because it varies from season to season. Viruses are constantly changing, so it’s not unusual for new strains to appear each year or even during the course of one flu season, according to the state Department of Health.
Learning from the past
When a new strain of H1N1 virus spread across the globe in 2009 and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, health care officials saw public interest in receiving a flu vaccine reach a fever pitch. They believe that message has stuck.
“More people were getting vaccinated because of that publicity,” said Voight, who noted that Ellis has only had two confirmed flu cases so far this season. “Compared to last year and the year before, it’s less significant. In the past, people had kind of shunned the flu vaccination, thinking, ‘Well, it’s the same thing every year,’ and just not paying attention to it. Once we had swine flu outbreak, people became acutely aware of the dangers of the flu and realized it’s not something you can ignore.”
Experts pick which viruses to include in a vaccine many months in advance, in order for it to be produced and delivered on time. And because it’s not possible to guarantee which flu viruses will predominate each season, a seasonal vaccine might not always match up to a seasonal virus.
So far this season, they’ve matched. The 2011-12 flu vaccine protects against three different flu viruses: an H3N2 virus, an influenza B virus and the H1N1 virus that caused so much illness last season, according to the state Department of Health website. These are the three strains identified so far, according to the CDC’s FluView surveillance site.
“The vaccines last year and this year are very similar in makeup, so I think the more people got the vaccine in them the more that immunity effect kicked in,” said Voight. “That ultimately decreases the spread.”
In the week ending Jan. 21, no states reported widespread flu activity and hospitalization rates in flu-confirmed patients are now lower than last year’s rates at this time, according to the latest CDC weekly FluView report.
In New York, 280 cases of flu have been reported from October through Jan. 21, according to state Health Department data. In the Capital Region and Northeast, the percentage of emergency room visits that confirmed flu-like illness in a patient has hovered from 4 to a little more than 5 percent.
Albany Medical Center and St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam reported they have had no confirmed flu cases as of Wednesday.
“I think we certainly can attest that the more people are getting vaccinated the less it is spreading,” said Dave Fariello, a St. Mary’s nurse and supervisor of Employee Health and Safe Patient Handling. “But peak flu season is toward the end of February and into March, and that’s when we usually see the most cases in our area. I don’t want to lull people into a false sense of security. People should still get their flu shots.”
Fariello said there were maybe a “handful of confirmed cases” at St. Mary’s last year at this time. The Amsterdam hospital has seen patients come in for upper respiratory issues, but none have tested positive for the flu.
“My recommendation is don’t assume that it’s not going to hit, thinking the season is almost over,” he said. “It could still hit, and it could still hit hard. Luckily, there’s plenty of vaccine out there.”
An ounce of prevention
St. Mary’s surpassed the national flu vaccination average for health care workers last month after an awareness campaign led by staff.
While flu vaccination benefits everyone, said St. Mary’s spokeswoman Jerri Cortese, it’s especially important that health care workers get vaccinated because of their frequent close contact with vulnerable populations who are at risk for flu complications.
St. Mary’s personnel vaccination rate was 96 percent as of Jan. 9. The current national flu vaccination average among health care workers is about 64 percent, according to the CDC.
Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville has confirmed only one case of flu so far this season, said spokeswoman Cheryl McGrattan.
Dr. Jan Carstens said that because this year’s vaccine makeup is the same as last year’s, immunity to the virus is growing. She warned, though, that this doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t get vaccinated this year if they did last year.
“You’re not covered automatically,” said Carstens, who runs a family practice out of Nathan Littauer’s Perth-Broadalbin Center. “If you had the vaccine last year, those antibodies level tend to decline as time goes on. So I would still actively encourage people to be immunized, even at this point in the game.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone age 6 months and older get a yearly flu vaccine. In addition, it recommends people take everyday preventive steps like washing hands, avoiding sick people and staying home from work or school if they are sick with the flu to prevent spreading the virus.
Vaccines are generally available at local pharmacies, as well as primary care centers and hospitals.
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Categories: Schenectady County