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Fighting the ‘F’ word: Flu roars through region

weston-flu-tissue-sickThere have been 1,676 laboratory-confirmed reports of influenza in the state, as of Thursday, Jan. 10. The State Health Department and local health officials are encouraging people to take the proper steps to prevent themselves from getting the flu or spreading it.

Dr. Patrick Broderick, chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Danbury Hospital, said the 1,676 cases of the flu are the cases that have been reported.

“Lots of flu cases never go fully reported,” he said. “But the barometer of cases reported are well ahead of last year.”

Dr. Broderick said Fairfield and New Haven counties have had the highest number of reported cases thus far this year.

“Unlike the H1N1 virus we had a couple years ago, this does not seem to be particularly affecting any age group. H1N1 was found more in the pediatric population, it affected children much more. This is affecting the general population,” he said.

Monica Wheeler, community health director at the Westport Weston Health District, said she received reports of at least a dozen people with the flu in just one day this week.

Vaccination

The primary way to prevent contracting the flu virus is by getting a flu vaccination.

Children from 6 months to 18 years old, women who will be pregnant during the flu season and people at least 50 years of age should get the flu vaccine. Also, people with chronic medical conditions and those who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

“It’s not too late to vaccinate yourself,” said Dr. Broderick. “It does take two to four weeks to acquire some immunity, but the flu season will continue through February and March.”

Ms. Wheeler said the concern is that numbers are high and it is early in the season — and, while there is not an actual shortage, it is hard to find the flu vaccine right now.

The Westport Weston Health District ordered 110 doses of vaccine last week and it got most of them in early this week, Ms. Wheeler said. But it had already scheduled more than 100 appointments to administer the vaccine.

“I’m floored by the number of people who haven’t been vaccinated yet,” she said.

Doctors and pediatricians are also giving flu shots and flu mist as quickly as they can get it into the office, she said. But, she added, it’s not too late, and she recommends calling either one’s doctor or the health district and making an appointment — or getting on a waiting list — to get vaccinated. Some pharmacies are also offering the vaccine when they have it.

“The 1,676 reported cases so far this year, surpasses the entire amount of last year’s cases by nearly 600,” Ms. Wheeler said. “I’m not feeling so good about that,” especially since the flu season often doesn’t even peak until February.

Prevention

The best thing people can do to prevent the flu is to “take good care of yourself,” Ms. Wheeler said.  That includes washing your hands, staying away from crowds, eating well, and getting plenty of rest. And, she said, above all, “stay home when you’re sick and keep your kids home when they are sick.”

Other suggestions are to cover coughs and sneezes with the crook of an elbow rather than with hands, to wipe down telephones, cell phones and computer keyboards with antiseptic, and to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

One complication this flu season is that other diseases, like the Norwalk virus, are simultaneously making the rounds.

The Norwalk virus is a gastrointestinal virus that some people call the stomach flu, but it is different from the seasonal flu.

Symptoms

Dr. Broderick said the flu virus differs from the common cold. It is associated with fevers over 101 degrees, and chills, body aches, cough, sore throat, and overwhelming fatigue are the predominant symptoms.

“For influenza, it is a viral strain; there is no antibiotic for it, but there are anti-viral medications that can be prescribed within 48 hours of onset symptoms,” he said.

Tamiflu has been given to flu patients over the last couple of years, he said.

“Because of the limited amount of anti-viral medication, we do try to reserve it for elderly or immune-compromised patients,” he said.

For the “average, healthy adult without diabetes, emphysema or congestive heart failure, most will do fine with bed rest, fluids, over-the-counter fever reducer like Tylenol or Advil, and a cough suppressant,” he said. “People more at risk would get an anti-viral medication.”

Dr. Broderick is also discouraging people from going to the hospital for just the simple flu.

“The reason for that is that the emergency departments are very overwhelmed with regular emergency cases. Then adding the spike of flu illness and the Norwalk virus, there are longer wait times in the emergency room, which increases the number of patients in the emergency department who are a vector to spread influenza to people at a greater risk,” said Dr. Broderick.

He said he is advising people who have the flu but don’t have other associated health conditions to stay home, rest, take fluids, control the fever, and contact their primary care physician for further instructions.

“We don’t want a mass panic of people going to the hospital if they have the flu. It’ll worsen the situation and spread the flu to the community,” said Dr. Broderick. “Everyone is susceptible to getting the flu.”

Boston, Mass., and other metropolitan areas have declared a public health emergency.

The Connecticut Nurses Association reports that 41 states have what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers widespread flu activity (cases in every county of a state).

“We’re trying to stay ahead of that. We’re getting the awareness out to the communities and advising people to stay home if you are sick,” Dr. Broderick said.

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