Seasonal flu hits epidemic level

Sue Guinn Legg • Jan 12, 2013 at 7:47 PM

The federal Centers for Disease Control on Friday reported the seasonal flu outbreak has hit an epidemic level across the United States with 47 states reporting widespread flu activity and 24 states, including Tennessee, reporting high incidences of flu.

The good news in the CDC’s weekly flu report was that decreases in some key tracking data indicate the flu season may be past its peak in some regions of the country, although the infection is continuing to climb in other areas.

Nationally and locally, public health officials are once again urging everyone to take precautions, beginning with a flu shot.

Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the Northeast Regional Health Office in Johnson City, said Tennessee’s flu tracking data shows 6.9 percent of patients with flu-like symptoms tested by sentinel providers statewide tested positive for flu, or approximately three times the 2 percent to 2.5 percent threshold of epidemic level. “That’s pretty high over the threshold,“ Kirschke said.

“People are predicting this will be a severe season. H3N2 is the prominent strain and H3N2 is the more severe. So far, just looking at the numbers, it looks like there is more flu. Some of the CDC indicators have come down, but flu-like (illness) is still shooting up.”

Kirschke said the Regional Health Office’s best advice for the public continues to be to get the flu vaccine and take precautions.

“Basically, precaution is the key. If you haven’t been vaccinated, we encourage you to try and get vaccinated. Stay home if you’re sick. Well people avoid sick people. If you cough, cover your cough. And wash your hands, especially before you eat,” he said.

While neither Johnson City or Washington County schools have seen a significant uptick in student absences, flu has been reported in both school systems.

“We haven’t seen any significant impact,” Johnson City Schools Attendance and Testing Supervisor Cindy Lawson said. “We have had a few cases, but most of those were in December. We’ve had very few, one or two in January. And all of these cases are documented by doctors.”

In Washington County schools, the flu count also has decreased since the Christmas break. Shannon Bishop, coordinator of the school system’s Coordinated School Health program, said of the 9,000 students who attend county schools, a total of 100 flu-related absences, including 25 cases this week, have been called in by parents.

“These are parent-confirmed cases and that makes it difficult for us (to track) because people refer to a lot of different things as flu. Some parents have told us they’ve taken their child to a doctor and they have the flu and others have just said ‘they have the flu,’ but they may be referring to stomach flu. It’s hard for us to know.”

On Thursday, the American Red Cross issued a statement urging East Tennessee residents to take precautions, including maintaining good health habits to maximize the body’s natural resistance to illness. The Red Cross also recommends frequent hand washing with soap and antibacterial hand sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes and minimizing contact with people who are sick.

More information about seasonal flu and how to avoid it can be found online at www.redcross.org.

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