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Pa. flu season could be 'much more robust' this year, experts say

| Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 12:04 a.m.

The flu season is off to an early start and could end up being a bad one compared to previous years, local, state and federal health officials reported Monday.

During the last week of November 2011, there were nine confirmed cases of the flu in Pennsylvania compared to 76 cases during the same period this year, said Holli Senior, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health. Influenza has been reported in 41 of 67 counties.

Between Oct. 2, and Nov. 24, Allegheny County led the state in the number of cases with 32, according to the department. Franklin County followed with 20 cases; Montgomery County, 15; Delaware, 14; and Chester, 13.

Senior said the state is anticipating “a much more robust” flu season than last year, which she described as “very unique.”

“During the 2011-12 flu season, we had fewer than 2,000 cases statewide compared to more than 19,000 cases the year before that, which was a fairly typical year,” Senior said.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that flu cases have jumped so far in five southern states — Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas — and that two children infected by the virus have died.

“It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC's director. “The good news is that the nation seems fairly well-prepared.”

Frieden said more than a third of Americans received vaccinations and that the vaccine is well-matched to the strains of the virus researchers have detected.

Dave Zazac, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, said flu cases typically do not begin to appear until after the holiday season.

“During this time of year, we usually get three or four cases a week,” Zazac said. “But this week we had nine confirmed cases in the county, so the virus is definitely circulating earlier than we typically see.”

Health officials said it is not clear why.

The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths. The dominant type of flu then was the same one doctors are seeing this year.

One key difference between then and now, however: In 2003-04, the vaccine was poorly matched to the strain. There also is more vaccine available now, and the rate at which people are getting inoculated has risen for the general public and among people who are particularly susceptible, such as pregnant women and health care workers.

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Tony LaRussa is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7987 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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