Flu warning: This year's season could be severe, experts say
Rumblings of a horrid flu season and mismatched vaccine continue to gain momentum as the holiday season approaches.
Much of the concern can be traced to Australia and The Southern Hemisphere, which struggled with a severe flu strain that made life miserable for residents.
Now, some clusters of the so-called H3N2 flu are surfacing, especially in the southeastern United States.
“It's definitely concerning, but it's too early to say with certainty that our experience will be the same as Australia,” said Dr. Marc Itskowitz, an Allegheny Health Network internal medicine physician. “Historically, the H3N2 virus tends to produce a more robust inflammatory response and can cause more illnesses.”
So far, the flu isn't rampant in Western Pennsylvania. There have been 54 cases reported in Allegheny County and 27 in Westmoreland County, according to the state Department of Health.
The flu already is being categorized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as widespread in Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts and Oklahoma. According to a CBS News report , the flu vaccine was only 10 percent effective in Australia.
“If efficacy turns out to be as low as 10 percent, we would likely see a severe flu season where people will not have as much protection as in the past,” said Itskowitz.
Still, he said, a flu vaccine can reduce symptoms for those who contract the nasty virus.
The vaccine is generally about 40 percent to 50 percent effective each year.
The flu kills about 36,000 people a year, on average, according to the CDC. Flu activity usually begins in October and peaks between December and March.
Common symptoms include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, congestion, body aches, headaches and severe fatigue. Symptoms can last a week to 10 days.
Denise Addis, Excela Health's director of medical quality, said a bad flu season seems to come around once every few years.
“Some years, they don't hit it exactly right and we see a high volume of patients come in, and other years it's minimal,” she said. “We'll be prepared either way.”
A flu shot and frequent hand washing are still the best forms of protection, Addis said.
“We touch so many surfaces and pass germs from person to person without even realizing it,” she said. “Hand washing is extremely important.”
Last season, the flu infected 5,001 people in Allegheny County and 1,640 in Westmoreland County, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“I absolutely believe the flu vaccine is the best method of protection along with good hygiene, especially over the holiday when everyone is getting together indoors with family and friends,” Itskowitz said.
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.