The influenza season in Wisconsin is now officially in full swing, with officials from the Centers For Disease Control (CDC) characterizing the flu outbreaks in the state as “widespread.”
According to Ashland and Bayfield County Health Officers Cyndi Zach and Terri Kramolis, the peak flu season for the Bay Area is typically late January to early February.
Both said Friday they hope this increase in activity is an early peak, and not the beginning of a more severe flu season with increasing incidents of influenza later this month.
“It’s early this year,” said Kramolis. “We are seeing more cases and earlier than we typically do.”
That is ominous, especially as CDC said this flu season could be severe.
According to a CDC news release, this year Influenza A H3N2 viruses have been the most common.
Increasing the risk of a severe flu season is the finding that roughly half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are drift variants: viruses with antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from that season’s vaccine virus.
CDC said this means the vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced, although vaccinated people may have a milder illness if they do become infected. During the 2007-2008 flu season, the predominant H3N2 virus was a drift variant, yet the vaccine had an overall efficacy of 37 percent and 42 percent efficiency against H3N2 viruses.
Kramolis said it was important to understand that not everything people generically refer to as “the flu” were in fact influenza.
“A lot of people confuse influenza with some of the other viral or enteric agents that that are going around,” she said. “When we are talking about influenza we are talking about the respiratory that is usually accompanied by body aches, fever. It can start like a regular cold but the difference is like being hit by a truck. It comes on quickly and the symptoms are severe.”
Other symptoms include dry cough, extreme tiredness and fatigue, and nasal congestion.
The dangers of influenza should not be discounted, as CDC reports 15 child deaths nationwide to date this flu season. Fortunately, Wisconsin has experienced none thus far.
“While the numbers of influenza cases are increasing, it is still too early for us to make any kind of determination about this flu season other than it’s an early start,” Kramolis said. “This year’s influenza vaccine has limited effectiveness against some “drifted” — antigenically different — viruses present in this year’s outbreak.” This drift was not detected early enough to be included in the composition of this year’s vaccine. Kramolis said.
“There is no real guarantee that when we give a flu shot, the person getting the shot won’t get the flu anyway, but preventing the flu isn’t the big reason we give the shots,” Kramolis said. “We give flu shots so that people don’t end up hospitalized and dying of pneumonia secondary to the flu.
Even if a person does come down with the flu, there is the option of seeking treatment with an anti-flu drug like Tamiflu or Relenza, which can reduce both the severity and length of the infection. Both treatments should be started within 48 hours of first noting symptoms of the flu.
The flu shot is only the first line of defense in minimizing the effects of the flu on the community, said Kramolis.
“If people are sick, they should stay home. If children are sick, they should be kept home from school, and good hand hygiene, hand washing is one of your best defenses,” she said, noting that viruses could survive on surfaces for a considerable period of time with some studies suggesting up to 24 hours.
“You need to be aware of where you are putting your hands, touching your face, and of course, hand washing and covering your sneeze.”