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WINTER 2014: Flu season peaking in Kentucky

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Officials urge public to get immunized

By Lisa King

The flu season is in full swing, and public health officials say that this year the numbers of flu cases are running similar to last year’s.

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“We’re reporting wide-spread activity throughout the state, so I would assume that Shelby is no different,” said Dr. Craig Hunbaugh, senior deputy commissioner for the Kentucky Department of Public Health.

Hunbaugh said that situation is not unusual because January and February are peak months for flu in Kentucky.

“Part of that is because the weather is cold and we’re in closer proximity to each other, and that means the virus has a greater opportunity to spread,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that nationwide, from Jan. 5-11 in 2014, 14 states, mostly in the South and Midwest, reported high influenza activity, and  12 – including Kentucky – reported moderate activity.

Hunbaugh said the strain that is predominant this year is H1N1, which was considered a pandemic strain in 2009 and 2010.

“That just means that was the first time we had ever seen that strain, and that no one is totally immune to that particular type,” he said. “But now it’s become part of our seasonal strains, and it is covered by this year’s flu vaccines. That is the good news. The bad news is that we’ve had several deaths reported across the state this flu season and so, unfortunately, as far as we know, we weren’t able to confirm if those who died had had a flu shot.”

The North Central District Health Department, serving Shelby, Henry, Spencer and Trimble is still giving out flu shots, although officials say supplies are going fast.

“We have given about five-hundred flu shots this season, and that is pretty typical,” RN Beverly Aldridge said. “We have a very limited amount of doses left, maybe five or ten, so if anyone need a shot, they need to make an appointment [633-1231] as soon as possible.”

Kroger officials, as well as other pharmacies report that they are prohibited from releasing figures for the number of flu shots they have administered. But Walgreens pharmacist Morgan Justice said she could say that more people have been coming in for shots this flu season.

“We’ve given more than we did last year, which is good, because we’re raising awareness,” she said.

“We’re still giving them, and we still have vaccine. We give an overall immunization assessment, and we tend to just look at general demographics for anybody who qualifies for, like, a shingle’s vaccine. We’ll recommend that to anyone who may have a history of smoking or respiratory infections or who is over the age of sixty-five. We can do that when we give the flu shot because it’s a lot easier to get all those vaccines at once than have to keep coming back.”

Hunbaugh said it’s much easier to catch the flu than people realize.

“The way it spreads is through small droplets, coughing or sneezing,” he said.  “If you’re infected, those tiny little droplets fly through the air, and they can be breathed in by someone who’s susceptible, or they can fall onto an inanimate object, and then if somebody touches that object and puts their hands in their mouth or their eyes, they can be infected that way, too.”

Hunbaugh said that frequent hand washing certainly helps, but the best way to keep from catching the flu is to get immunized.

“Flu shots are not hundred percent effective, but they’re the best tool we have to prevent illness and hospitalization and death,” he said. “So anyone six months or older should be getting a flu shot and if they haven’t had one, it’s still not too late to do it, because the flu season is still on. It does take a couple of weeks to develop antibodies against the flu so it’s not immediate.”

Hunbaugh said that about 45 percent of Kentuckians get flu shots each year, and of that figure, 70 percent are senior citizens. He urges those people who fall into high-risk categories, such as the very young, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory ailments to get a shot, especially since new strains of flu are constantly evolving.

“The different strain causes your body not to recognize that strain; that’s its survival mechanism,” he said. “That’s one reason why you need a new flu shot each season, because we do see different types of strains circulating each year.”

Symptoms include cough, fever, muscle ache, headache, difficulty breathing and fatigue.

Hunbaugh said that even though the vaccine has been known to cause some discomfort, such as soreness or redness at the site of the shot, or even more serious problems, people should still be immunized.

“The risk of getting the flu or dying from the flu far outweighs any potential side effects,” he said.

Assistant Emergency Medical Director Jeff Ivers said he does not know how many of the 487 runs that Shelby County ambulances have made so far in 2014 have included flu patients, but that crews have transported an influx of people bearing flu-like symptoms.

“We have several we’ve transported who have presented the symptoms, but I don’t if they were diagnosed with it,” he said.  

“I can’t be sure if we’ve seen more sick person cases than last year – that would be hard to say.”