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Flu gets early start this season

James Knox | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Health Department pharmacy chief Nancy Caracciolo shows off the flu vaccine Friday September 7, 2012 inside a cooler in the department's facility in Lawrenceville.

Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 8:43 p.m.

Flu season made its earliest arrival in Western Pennsylvania in nearly a decade, but awareness and an effective seasonal vaccine could undermine a rapid outbreak, health officials said.

Doctors in Western Pennsylvania began diagnosing widespread influenza in early December, part of a national surge that developed about a month earlier than usual. Allegheny County led the state with 551 laboratory-confirmed flu cases – about 14 percent of the Pennsylvania total – from Oct. 16 through Dec. 22, though doctors said varied reporting practices may make statewide figures inconsistent.

Some 600,000 to 1.3 million Pennsylvanians get the flu each year, according to state health officials. Flu season generally runs from October to May.

“It definitely is here, and we're definitely seeing a ton of it in the community,” said Dr. David A. Nace, chief of medical affairs for UPMC Senior Communities.

He said the H3N2 strain that's common this season tends to be severe in the elderly.

Yet doctors said the most prevalent flu strains do not appear any worse than normal. And the vaccination formula, developed by the Food and Drug Administration in consultation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, appears a good match to fight those strains, said Dr. Ronald Voorhees, interim health director for the county Health Department.

The earlier flu season arrives, he said, the more people tend to follow physicians' advice and get flu shots. Federal, state and local health officials strongly recommend the shot, which requires a couple weeks after inoculation to take full effect.

“If kids get vaccinated, it can protect other people who are at higher risk,” Voorhees said. Nace noted that the vaccination has proven effective in preventing fatalities and hospitalizations, with fewer than 10 percent of flu sufferers this season being admitted for hospital stays.

“I think it speaks to the success of the flu vaccine,” he said.

The CDC suggests that everyone 6 months or older be vaccinated. The agency estimates that the vaccine is 60 percent to 70 percent effective in fighting the flu virus.

The CDC does not have a precise efficacy rate for the 2012 vaccine formula, according to spokesman Thomas Skinner.

An estimated 42 percent of Americans, or 132 million people, received flu shots in 2011, up from 25 percent in 2000. As many as 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu each year.

Preliminary data suggest overall vaccination rates are roughly on par with 2011 numbers, with more health-care workers and young children receiving the shot, Skinner said.

Chicago-based Walgreens, one of the largest U.S. drugstore chains, administered 5.3 million flu shots between Aug. 6 and Dec. 19, slightly more than the 5.2 million administered during the same period last year, company spokesman Jim Cohn said.

He said the CDC announcement of an early flu season, issued several weeks ago, affected sales. “Many stores have seen an increase in flu shots administered in the wake of that,” Cohn said.

Although the spread of flu viruses often pick up speed in January in Western Pennsylvania, doctors said, forecasting the rest of the season is an inexact science. The virus' spread might soon ease up, they noted, or a new strain could emerge and wreak havoc anew.

Apart from the flu shot, doctors offered several suggestions for stopping the spread of the virus: Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, and stay at home if you're sick.

And don't discount the importance of hand-washing, said Dr. Richard Wadas, an emergency physician at UPMC Shadyside.

“It's really simple, and it does significantly help prevent the flu,” he said.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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