Flu season arrives early

Though Ohio’s peak influenza season is still a month away, reported cases of the flu are already above last season’s peak levels and holding steady, said Amy Murphy, RN, regional epidemiologist for southeast Ohio.

The same is true more locally as well, according to Jonni Tucker, registered nurse at the Marietta City Health Department.

“Normally, our peak season is February, but this year we saw a big rise in early December and it’s stayed at those levels,” she said.

To put that in context, in the last week of December, Ohio reported 400 cases of hospitalizations related to influenza. For the same week in 2011, the state reported 50 influenza related hospitalizations, Tucker said.

However, flu season also started approximately a month earlier than usual, so it is still uncertain if current numbers will represent an early peak, or if the numbers will continue to rise, she said.

The most important thing that people can do to protect themselves against the flu is to get a vaccination, said Carma Schilling, a nurse at the Marietta Health Department.

“All of these preventable diseases are showing their faces. People don’t get vaccinated because they have a strong immune system or because it only lasts a day or two, but you could be sharing it with someone who can’t fight it,” she said.

Children, the elderly and pregnant women are all highly vulnerable to the flu.

And contrary to widespread belief, no one can get the flu from receiving a flu shot, Schilling added.

While a shot might make an individual achy or sore, it does not contain the active flu virus, which could give someone the flu.

However, a flu shot takes two weeks to become active. Therefore, it is possible that individuals who are exposed to the flu in the first two weeks following vaccination could contract the flu.

At Marietta Memorial Hospital, the emergency department saw a 5 percent increase in volume in December, said hospital spokeswoman Jennifer Offenberger.

“The majority of it was related to flu symptoms,” she said.

Vaccinations at the city health department are down slightly this season, with 1,916 vaccinations given as of Jan. 1, compared to 1,944 for that time frame last flu season, said Vickie Kelly, director of nursing.

In addition to the shot,those with the department recommended people also wash their hands frequently, cover their nose and mouth, and avoid public places, including work, if symptoms arise.

The flu is a respiratory illness, and symptoms include cough, fever, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue, said Tucker.

Also, people who are experiencing vomiting and diarrhea are not suffering from the flu, but rather from the norovirus.

“People say, oh this flu is the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. But those symptoms are not the flu,” she said.

Ohio’s high influenza rates are indicative of a national trend.

On its website, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that hospital outpatient visits from influenza-like illness was 5.6 percent for the final week of 2012, well over the national baseline of 2.2 percent. Ohio was one of 29 states reporting high levels of influenza activity, it stated.