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Early flu season hits hard

7:32 PM, Dec 4, 2012   |    comments
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By Tom Wilemon, The Tennessean

Tennessee and other Southeastern states are posting the highest number of influenza cases in the earliest flu season in a decade, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday.

The last time flu season started this early was in 2003.

"That was an early and severe flu year," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. "While flu is always unpredictable, the early nature of the cases as well as the specific strains we're seeing suggest this could be a bad flu year."

This year's flu shot is a 90 percent match for the strains reported to the CDC. It includes the H1NI, which caused a 2009-10 pandemic, and the H3N2 strain that is causing the most illnesses this year, Frieden said.

Workers with the Tennessee Department of Health have given 86,000 vaccinations, but state epidemiologist Dr. Tim F. Jones said more people should get protected before spending time with family members who may be at increased risk for severe complications.

Some county health departments offer free vaccinations, as do many employers. Grocery stores, pharmacies and clinics also offer vaccinations. Earlier this season, some Kroger stores offered drive-thru clinics where patients received vaccines while still in their cars.

The vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective.

"I think all of us reap the benefits of people around us protecting themselves," Jones said. "If you are a healthy 38-year-old, I'm not very worried about you, but you do not need to be putting your grandmother in the nursing home at risk or the baby that you go and visit at a Christmas party."

People who never get the vaccine and never get the flu benefit from community immunity or have been lucky, he said.

"It's like people boasting about not wearing their seat belts," Jones said. "Lots of us could stand up and say, 'I've been driving without a seat belt for 60 years, and I'm still alive.' Well, the dead ones aren't there to brag about it."

The season in Tennessee usually peaks in January and February, but this year could be different, Jones said.

Flu season can be severe, hospitalizing up to 200,000 people and killing between 3,000 and 49,000 Americans. Last year was a relatively mild season, but CDC officials said that H3N2 strains have been associated with more severe seasons in the past. The H1N1, first referred to as the swine flu, killed more than 1,000 children in the United States, Frieden said.

It's a myth that the shot makes people sick, said Dr. Dan Jernigan, deputy director of the CDC's influenza division.

"There are many respiratory viruses that cause illness," Jernigan said. "Flu is one of them. Flu is one of the preventable respiratory viruses. Getting vaccinated for the flu does not necessarily prevent you at all from getting any of those other respiratory viruses."

Flu is much more serious illness than most respiratory viruses, Jernigan said.

Those considered at highest risk from flu-related complications include young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

The flu costs the American health care system about $10.4 billion a year and $87 billion in indirect costs, such as missed work days, Jernigan said.

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