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Flu cases rise in Western Pa., but ailment down sharply from last winter

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 10:24 p.m.
James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Domenic McKee, 5 of West View winces as Allegheny County Health Department nurse Ruth Lilly administers his flu shot Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013 at the county's offices in Oakland.

The number of people diagnosed with the flu in several Western Pennsylvania counties has increased over the past week, and reports of those sickened in Allegheny County have more than doubled.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health reports that 159 people tested positive for the flu in Allegheny County from Sept. 29 through the week ending Saturday. A week prior, 72 people tested positive for the ailment through the same period.

Despite the recent increase, those numbers are down sharply from last winter's particularly bad flu season, when 726 people tested positive for the virus in Allegheny County during the same period.

Health officials said last winter's flu season started earlier and this year's vaccine is a better match.

“The strains we are seeing is what strains were provided in the vaccine,” said Holli Senior, spokeswoman with the Department of Health.

Health officials acknowledge that flu statistics aren't an accurate picture of how many people actually have the virus.

“There are many people who never go to their doctor, and there are physicians who don't do a test,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, head of the county health department. “There are a lot more people with the flu than what's been pinpointed.”

The state's numbers show that the reported cases in Allegheny County trail only Blair County's 189. Butler County is third with 121 cases, followed by Westmoreland County with 89.

Doctors and labs are required to report confirmed cases of the flu to the state.

Doctors emphasize that there is still time to get a flu shot. The season doesn't peak until the end of January.

“You lower your risk of losing work time and having to spend money to see a doctor (when you get a flu shot),” said Dr. John Danek, medical director of employee health at Jefferson Regional Medical Center. “People will use any excuse not to get one. They're counting on herd immunity — that it will crowd out the disease.”

Danek said the flu tends to spread in the winter.

“We tend to stay indoors in large crowds — at sporting events, theaters, malls. And because the air is drier, we have drier nasal mucus membranes, and it makes it easier for the disease to invade,” he said.

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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