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Influenza hits epidemic level locally, free vaccine to be available at health departments

Sue Guinn Legg • Jan 9, 2014 at 7:52 PM

The national surge in seasonal flu that began in the final week of December has prompted Tennessee’s Department of Health to make the flu vaccine available at no cost beginning today.

Locally, Dr. David Kirschke, director of Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office said, “The epidemic is starting now.”

“It just started to kick in the last couple of weeks. ... Nationally, the information confirms it is severe.”

Local hospitals are reporting that while confirmed cases of flu are on the upswing, the number of flu-related deaths at their facilities are in keeping with this point in past flu seasons.

Mountain States Health Alliance facilities have reported three influenza-related deaths since October. Compared to past years, Dr. Anastasia Brown, lead physician for Mountains States’ First Assist clinic in Kingsport said, “unfortunately” the number is typical.

Nationwide about 36,000 people die from complications of influenza every year.

This flu season, Brown said, “We started out fairly slow. We had the first cases the week after Thanksgiving. We definitely had an upswing at Christmas, but we don’t think we are at the peak. We think it will be bigger as kids get back into school.”

Wellmont Health System hospitals have treated 143 confirmed cases of flu, in keeping with their numbers during a typical season.

Kirshke said flu-tracking data compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicates the H1N1 influenza strain that resulted in an flu pandemic in 2009 is the predominant strain of infection again this year.

Unlike other strains that pose a greater risk to people age 65 and older, Kirshke said H1N1 is known to be most severe among children and young and middle-age adults. According to the CDC, there were 15 flu-related deaths among children in Tennessee in 2009, compared to two to three child deaths in more typical flu seasons.

Based on flu data gathered in the Southern Hemisphere during the first half of 2013, he said the reemergence of H1N1 was expected and the vaccine to fight it was included in the engineering of this year’s flu shot.

Kirshke and Brown both emphasized the flu shot is the best line of defense for avoiding the flu, decreasing its severity and preventing its spread. They said the vaccine is particularly important to those considered at greatest risk, including children, pregnant women, seniors and anyone with a chronic disease or compromised immune system.

Beth Rader, public relations officer of the regional health office, said area health departments are making the flu vaccine available at no cost beginning today.

“It’s because we have it available and because of increase of number of cases,” Rader said.

In Washington County, vaccinations may be obtained by appointment by calling the county health department at 975-2200.

Rader said county health departments across the region are still determining if they will offer the vaccine by appointment or in mass clinics. The regional health office will release more information about the health departments’ vaccination schedules today.

Mooney’s Pharmacy on North Roan Street announced Thursday it will conduct a free flu clinic from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday as a service to its customers and others in the community with limited access to health care. The pharmacy has about 150 flu vaccine doses available and will continue administering shots at no charge after the clinic while its supply lasts.

Krishke and Brown advised anyone who is experiencing flu symptoms, such as fever, chills, body aches, sore throat and cough, to see a doctor as soon as possible.

If the infection is diagnosed within the first 48 hours of infection, the CDC is advising doctors to prescribe anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu or Relenza to patients in the most at-risk groups in order to reduce the infection’s severity and duration.

The general course of treatment includes rest, increased fluids and anti-inflammatory medications. In addition to the vaccine, recommended preventative measures include good hand hygiene, avoiding contact with people who have the flu and staying home and away from others when you are sick

While the state Department of Health has confirmed nine flu-related deaths in Middle Tennessee so far this flu season, Kirshke said the most recent CDC data does not include any confirmed flu-related deaths in Northeast Tennessee.

Kirschske noted the data is limited to flu-related deaths reported prior to Dec. 28 and includes only people who died after testing positive for flu, not those who were diagnosed by a provider without a positive test result.

He also noted the rapid flu tests used by many providers are not always accurate and are known to result in many false positive and false negative results.

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