Flu season: Worst lies ahead

FAIRMONT — The Centers for Disease Control has labeled this season’s predominant influenza strain as “particularly vicious.”

The H3N2 flu strain has been reported in 49 states, Hawaii being the exception, with more than 74,500 confirmed cases as of Jan. 13, and that number does not include those individuals who didn’t see a doctor. Influenza has been blamed for numerous deaths, including 30 pediatric deaths.

And the worst could still be ahead of us, according to a local health authority.

“We usually see the first influenza cases about Nov. 1 around here, so we seem to be getting a late start this year,” said Roger Drahota, infection preventionist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont. “Historically in Minnesota, we peak about the middle of February, but every year is different.”

Cases of the H1N1 strain in 2009 peaked in April.

As of this week, Drahota had 43 confirmed cases of influenza at the medical facility but was certain “there’s a lot of them out there that are not confirmed.” There’s been only four admissions due to influenza at the Fairmont hospital, and a couple of patients were transferred to other sites due to underlying health issues, such as COPD or asthma, he said. Each day, the clinic physicians diagnose another case or two.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a full-blown epidemic here, but it’s kind of steady,” Drahota said.

“One of the things we want people to understand is that it’s not too late to get a vaccination,” he said. “The CDC will tell you that a vaccination is still the best thing you can do at this point, and we do have plenty of the vaccine available. It takes about two weeks to get any kind of immunity from the vaccine.”

He addressed reports that the vaccine isn’t a good match to the H3N2 strain that is predominant this year. He likened getting a vaccination to putting on your seatbelt. It might not prevent all injuries, but it has been proven to keep you alive.

“When you take a dosage of vaccine every year, it builds up your body’s exposure,” Drahota said. “There’s always those outliers, those people that get the vaccine but still get influenza.”

Having the shot will likely shorten the duration of the illness and lessen the symptoms, such as cough, high fever, weakness and body aches “that make you feel like you’ve got a ton of bricks on your shoulder,” he said. People are infectious the day before onset and up to seven days after the onset.

“Influenza will run a long time,” Drahota said.

He added that the CDC also has eliminated nose spray, which served as an option to an injection for the past seven years after determining “it wasn’t effective.”

“It’s also very important to know that when we talk about ‘flu,’ we’re referring to influenza,” he said. “We’re not talking about a gastrointestinal bug that causes diarrhea and vomiting. That’s two different things, two different viruses.”

Vaccine is only one tool in preventing influenza. Other measures involve common sense protocol: Wash your hands often. Cover your cough. Avoid sick people, and if you are sick, stay home and rest.

“It’s the old standbys,” Drahota said. “Hand hygiene is still the best for everything. Wash your hands.”

Use sanitizing wipes for shopping cart handles, door knobs, an office phone used by multiple people or any public object that receives lots of human contact. Many businesses and offices have hand sanitizer available on counters and other high traffic areas.

“A big thing is to stay home when you’re sick. A lot of times, it’s just taking care of the symptoms, drinking fluids and taking medication to bring down a fever,” Drahota said. “I think some of the old basic things are still good — chicken soup and rest.”