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Flu kills three in Allegheny County

Ben Schmitt
| Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, 2:21 p.m.
Influenza vaccine at the Allegheny County Health Department in Oakland on Wednesday, October 22, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Influenza vaccine at the Allegheny County Health Department in Oakland on Wednesday, October 22, 2014.

Three Allegheny County residents died of flu-related complications within the past week, officials said Friday.

Two men and one woman died, said Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. They were all over 60 and had underlying medical conditions, she said.

Hacker did not release additional details about the individuals, except to say that the underlying conditions included heart and lung disease and diabetes.

“At this point in time we have seen a really dramatic increase in cases,” Hacker told the Tribune-Review. “It is a bit earlier than we have seen in prior years. We are seeing a large volume of people in hospitals.”

Much of this season's concern can be traced to Australia and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere, which struggled with a severe flu strain called H3N2. That same strain is now wreaking havoc on the U.S. Some experts speculate this year's vaccine may only be 10 percent effective against the flu strain.

“It appears this strain is particularly virulent and we are concerned about vulnerable populations being hospitalized,” she said.

In Pennsylvania alone, the virus has contributed to 18 deaths through Jan. 6, six of them people younger than 65, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Kyler Baughman, a seemingly healthy 21-year-old man from Latrobe, died of flu-related complications Dec. 28.

Flu symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, congestion, body aches, headaches and severe fatigue.

Those who get a flu shot and still contract the virus will most likely have less severe symptoms, experts say.

Antiviral medication, like Tamiflu, can also reduce duration of infection and lessen symptoms if administered early.

“It's very important that residents call their health care provider as soon as possible if they're experiencing flu symptoms to determine if antiviral drugs should be prescribed,” Hacker said. “Antivirals can reduce severity of illness and are recommended for those at high-risk for flu complications: the elderly, children, pregnant women, and persons with chronic medical conditions. This medication works best if started within two days of onset of symptoms.”

Frequent hand washing also protects the virus from spreading .

“All residents can take precautions too. Wash your hands. Do not cough or sneeze into your hands — cough or sneeze into your shoulder or elbow instead,” Hacker said. “And stay at home if you have flu symptoms so as not to infect others.”

The flu kills about 36,000 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Flu activity usually begins in October and peaks between December and March.

Through Jan. 6, the number of flu cases in Allegheny County totaled 1,842 and Westmoreland County had 658, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. A week earlier, there were 906 cases reported in Allegheny County and 318 in Westmoreland County.

Hacker said new figures that will be released next week will show a continued uptick.

Nationally, flu activity is widespread throughout the United States, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

Twenty children have died of the flu so far, the CDC said.

Health officials hope this year's flu season is peaking and the number of infected people will soon decline.

“It still means we have a lot more flu to go,” said Dr. Dan Jernigan, director of the CDC's Influenza Division at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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