Health official: Flu widespread

Published 9:50 am Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Graphic courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control

Graphic courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control

Flu season is going strong in Northeast Tennessee, and as one local health official said, the peak may be in sight local hospitals are enacting visitation restrictions to attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
“In Tennessee, flu is considered to be widespread right now,” said Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the Northeast Regional Health Office in Johnson City. “I’m not quite sure we’ve seen the peak yet, but I believe we are getting there.”
On Monday afternoon, Mountain States Health Alliance announced it was placing restrictions on those who wish to visit individuals in the hospital
“Due to the risk to our patients, Mountain States is implementing visitation restrictions at all of our hospitals,” said Jamie Swift, director of infection prevention for the health system. “We are asking that anyone under the age of 12 and anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms refrain from visiting patients in our hospitals at this time.”
Flu-like symptoms include cough, fever, body aches, headache, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, chills and fatigue.
“It’s important to understand that people can spread the flu before they even know that they have it,” Swift said. “The disease is contagious 24 hours before the onset of symptoms, and people can continue to spread the virus for a full week after the onset of symptoms, sometimes even longer in children.”
In addition to restricted visitation, Mountain States hospitals have already been employing a number of other precautions, including providing masks at each entrance and registration area and designating separate waiting areas for patients complaining of fever and respiratory symptoms.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers the flu to be at epidemic levels this winter, with high levels of flu activities in about half the country. According to MSHA, the Tri-Cities is among the hardest-hit areas in the nation, with the number of influenza cases rising dramatically each week in December at local hospitals and doctor’s offices.
However, because the influenza season is not over and cases of the illness still could be seen over the next two months, Kirschke said he and other public health officials are urging those who have not done so to get a flu vaccination. Kirschke especially recommends the vaccination to those who are at high risk for complications of the flu, including people older than 65, women who are pregnant and those with chronic illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease.
In addition to the flu, Kirschke said medical workers are seeing other illnesses that affect a person’s respiratory system.
“There are a lot of other illnesses similar to the flu,” he said.
Because testing for the flu virus is not always accurate, Kirschke said these illnesses are classified with the flu as “influenzalike illnesses” for reporting purposes.
“We are seeing a lot of it this year,” he said.
Along with severe cases of the flu or the other influenza-like illnesses comes the potential for death, Kirschke said.
“Every year, adults — typically older adults — die as a result of the flu,” he said. “Typically, it is older adults over the age of 65 and those with other illnesses such as diabetes, lung disease or heart disease.”
Even though adults can die from complications of the flu, Kirschke said the only flu-related deaths that are reported and tracked by health officials are pediatric deaths. So far this year, three pediatric flu deaths have been reported in Tennessee, but Kirschke said to his knowledge none of them have been in Northeast Tennessee.
The severity of this year’s flu outbreak could be related to the type of influenza that is circulating, Kirschke said.
Flu viruses are categorized as Influenza A or Influenza B viruses, with type “A” being more common and type “B” being more rare. Type “A” flu viruses are further broken down into two kinds: H1N1 and H3N2.
“Typically every year ,all three of those circulate but one is usually the more dominant strain for that year,” Kirschke said. This year, he added, the H3N2 type of the virus is the one being most commonly found by medical professionals.
“In general, in years where the H3N2 circulates, it is more severe,” Kirschke said. As far as the severity this year, Kirschke said “it’s probably comparable to past year’s when H3N2 has circulated.”
In addition to recommending use of the flu vaccine, Kirschke also urges those who believe they have the flu to seek medical care, especially if they are classified as having a higher risk for complications.

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