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Flu, flu-like illnesses sweep through Pennsylvania

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 12:12 a.m.
Laura Male, a registered nurse at Allegheny Valley Hospital's Destination Wellness, located in the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer, gives a flu shot to Gloria Schrader of Springdale on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

It may be called “flu season,” but there's more than one bug running rampant this year.

Flu is widespread across the area, and new data to be released today are expected to show rising numbers.

But, in addition to influenza, a couple of other illnesses have been prevalent in the past month, Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an internal medicine physician at Allegheny General Hospital, said Monday.

One is a stomach virus some call a “stomach flu,” but it isn't the flu, Itskowitz said. The viral infection causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. A flu shot won't protect against it.

The other is a respiratory illness that is “not quite as severe” as the flu, he said. It's causing laryngitis, coughing and sore throat.

As for the flu itself, it's been a very active — and deadly — season, local and state health officials said.

As of Dec. 29, there had been more than 7,000 cases in the state, said Holli Senior, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Health. Flu cases have been identified in every county, with nearly 1,300 in the Alle-Kiski Valley's four-county area.

It's believed to be only a fraction of the actual number of flu cases, as the state only reports those that are confirmed by a laboratory.

“The flu made an early appearance in Pennsylvania, as it did nationwide. We were seeing numbers reported before the holidays in early December we wouldn't typically see until January,” Senior said.

MedExpress Urgent Care in Tarentum reports a 30 percent increase in patient volume due to the flu and other ailments, including upper respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia, said Dr. Eric Skvarla.

“The ones we've seen, it's been pretty miserable for them. They're suffering,” he said. “I've seen so many different patterns of illness the last two to three weeks. There's a lot of things out there.”

Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison had 48 confirmed flu cases in December, said Dr. Dan Geary, medical director in the hospital's emergency department.

There's been a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in daily visits to the emergency department this flu season, Geary said. Many are flu or respiratory virus related.

Compared to the other ailments, the flu produces a higher fever and more general body aches, he said.

“We are definitely seeing a large amount of flu right now,” Geary said. “We are seeing a lot of elderly people with it. A number of nursing homes have had outbreaks.”

There had been four flu-related deaths statewide, all in individuals older than 65, Senior said. One was a woman in Westmoreland County. Senior could not say where.

The number of deaths also may be higher when the new data are released today.

Doctors and health officials are encouraging residents to get a flu shot. The season runs until April, peaking usually in January or February.

“It's not too late to get vaccinated,” Senior said. “We have not peaked yet this year. We're still on our way up. We anticipate seeing a lot more cases in the coming weeks.”

There is an ample supply of vaccine, and it is well matched to the strain that is circulating, Senior said. A shot takes 10 to 14 days to be effective.

While some who get a flu shot can get sick, most cases involve those who were not vaccinated, Itskowitz said.

“Vaccination is the single most important way to protect yourself against influenza. It protects not only yourself but those around you,” including infants too young to be vaccinated and the elderly, Senior said.

Besides getting vaccinated, good hand washing is key to controlling the spread of the flu, Geary said.

And contrary to any strongly held work ethic, it's best if those who are sick don't go to work.

“We're all grateful when people stay home and don't spread their germs,” Itskowitz said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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