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June 2012
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Widespread flu outbreak grips state, region

BY WILL PINKSTON wpinkston@paducahsun.com

Widespread influenza reports keep local clinics full with people scrambling for last-minute vaccines or outright treatment, as health professionals estimate peak viral intensity still some ways away.

Two weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention upgraded Kentucky to the highest level of flu activity possible, the seasonal virus continues to wreak havoc on the respiratory systems of many across the Purchase Area. At least half of all designated regions statewide reported the outbreak, and now the CDC reports severity indicators like hospitalizations and deaths continue to rise nationwide.

While October typically signals the start of flu season, it's months later in January and February when high transmission rates cause a spike in positive cases, so the widespread numbers aren't necessarily unexpected in the health community but nonetheless are troublesome as positive cases trend upward.

"We've only had flu A and no flu B, which is surprising compared to last year because we had both strains in some patients at the same time last year," said Lori Lipinski, nurse practitioner at Dallas Medical Family & Walk-in Clinic. "We have flu A patients this year that have already had their flu vaccines and they've still gotten the flu strain.

"I think last year was a little worse because patients had both strains, but patients with flu A this year are still very sick."

In recent weeks, Dallas Medical has averaged 20-25 patients a day complaining of flu-like symptoms. Lipinski said the majority of those patients won't test positive for the flu virus, as other respiratory issues and stomach bugs are circulating, like strep throat, but patients that do test positive report sudden, severe onset this year.

The recent spike in local cases also can be found in the numbers of rapid flu tests returning positive results in the past few months.

Baptist Health Paducah's laboratory tested 232 in-patient and emergency department patients for flu in November with only 8 percent returning positive. That's in comparison with December, where 435 rapid tests performed returned 25 percent positive. Rapid tests performed in January have yet to be tabulated entirely but Susan Thomas, hospital microbiology supervisor, said the recent figures appeared comparable if not more than December's numbers.

Of the positive flu cases reported to the CDC in Region 4 (includes Kentucky), the majority of cases are general influenza A strains followed by the specific H1N1 strain. The CDC reported this is the first year for resurgent high levels of H1N1 since it reached pandemic levels in 2009.

Typically flu's hardest hit victims are children under 5 and seniors over 65, but the H1N1 strain can particularly cause severe symptoms even for normally healthy young adults. Through Jan. 11, the CDC reported about 61 percent of hospitalizations resulting from flu were among the 18-64 age group, and about 95 percent of those hospitalizations were from influenza A. Of those influenza A cases, nearly 99 percent resulted from H1N1.

Infection from the flu can cause symptoms including fever, headache, coughing or sneezing, cold chills, sore throat, general body aches and fatigue, usually with a sudden onset. Serious complications from the flu virus can lead to potentially deadly pneumonia.

As the virus is easily spread from person to person, health professionals strongly recommend good personal hygiene considerations, like hand washing and sneezing into the arm as opposed to the hand, and avoiding going out if feeling ill.

The high levels of flu cases and H1N1 recently prompted the state's Cabinet for Health and Family Services to issue a statement earlier in January asking those not vaccinated to seek flu prevention as soon as possible.

However, while some national retailers in the area still offer flu vaccinations, the number of providers with vaccines is starting to decrease. Dallas Medical ran out of vaccines and will not reorder, Lipinski said, and same is the case for Lone Oak Pharmacy & Compounding Shoppe, pharmacist Mark Wurth said.

"It seems like we order more every year, and it still ends up not being enough," Wurth said.

As can be expected with the shift into peak flu season, the run on antibiotics and flu-battling medications is starting to increase as vaccines are on the decrease. Wurth said the pharmacy is well stocked on the antiviral Tamiflu - which lessens flu symptoms - and the drug isn't on back order but that could just as easily change given the unpredictable nature of flu outbreaks.

"I wouldn't doubt that we could still have a bad flu season, because there's still plenty of time left," he said.


Contact Will Pinkston, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8676 or follow @WCPinkston on Twitter.

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