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State's flu cases begin to ease, health officials say

| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 5:52 p.m.

The worst of the rampant influenza season may be over for Pennsylvania.

For the first time since autumn, the statewide count of laboratory-confirmed flu cases declined last week to 4,903, from 5,069 the week before. Reported flu-related hospitalizations dropped from 577 to 480.

The numbers from state health officials on Tuesday might be a good sign for Pennsylvanians eluding coughs, aches and fevers, although it's no guarantee the robust season has lost its bite, doctors said. Confirmed cases are roughly twice typical wintertime levels. Flu-related deaths reached 75 on Saturday.

“We're cautiously optimistic, but there have been years in which flu declined and then surged again,” said Dr. William Pasculle, director of microbiology at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. He said the UPMC system processed 660 samples last week from people with flu-like symptoms, down from 800 the week of Jan. 7.

Flu activity can last well into March, Pasculle said, echoing a warning from government health officials who advise it's not too late to get a flu shot. They said the vaccine is especially important for the elderly, young children and pregnant women, who have weakened immune systems.

“Predicting these things is always dangerous and littered with the bones of people who have tried,” Pasculle said of the flu season.

Confirmed cases represent a fraction of the outbreak, which can reach 5 percent to 10 percent of Pennsylvanians each year, according to the state Department of Health.

The 2012-13 season got a running start in early December, picking up speed over the holidays and inundating many doctors' offices, nursing homes and hospitals by early January. Flu-related deaths reached the highest number since 90 people died in the 2010-11 flu season, state health figures show.

Total cases remain high in Allegheny County, said Dr. Ronald Voorhees, acting county health director. The county led Pennsylvania in reported flu incidence, accounting for 2,104 of the 23,079 confirmed cases statewide.

Voorhees said a key gauge of the season dipped in the past couple weeks. Emergency-room visits in the county for flu-like symptoms declined from 6 percent in early January to about 3.3 percent, he said.

“It'll continue to tail off, but that tail is still higher than a normal flu season,” Voorhees said, warning the season may stay strong for four to six weeks. “We're still higher than where we would be at a peak in a normal flu season. We're by no means through with influenza for the year.”

People with chronic conditions are among those who face the greatest risk from flu, according to public health agencies.

The aggressive outbreak couldn't have come at a worse time for Nick Vardis, 28, of Fawn, whose fiancee, Andraya, is expecting a baby in about two weeks.

Doctors said pregnant women are among the most likely to develop severe — even fatal — complications from flu.

“We've been pretty lucky,” said Vardis, whose fiancee washes her hands often, takes prenatal vitamins and limits her contact with people who might be sick.

A flu shot administered to an expectant mother can add an extra safeguard to a newborn for six months after birth, said Dr. Denise Jamieson, chief of the women's health and fertility branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“Pregnant women are certainly getting the flu in large numbers right now,” Jamieson said, though state and federal agencies did not have figures. She said women with the flu can develop pulmonary complications and face a two-fold-greater risk of fetal deaths.

At the Midwife Center for Birth and Women's Health in the Strip District, care providers are seeing an uptick in flu cases, said clinical director Ann McCarthy.

“The issue is, they have to acknowledge they have influenza” and seek medical attention promptly, McCarthy said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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