The Union Recorder

January 16, 2013

Flu bug takes a bite across area, state

Vaishali Patel
The Union-Recorder

MILLEDGEVILLE — With high levels of the flu reported in Georgia and nearly 30 other states, 20 flu-related deaths have already been reported in children so far this winter across the nation, one of the worst tolls this early in the year since health officials began keeping track.

Data as of Jan. 5 show 471 people have been hospitalized with the flu in the metro-Atlanta area, states the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) website. So far, Georgia has had two flu-related deaths.

“The activity for the state is still widespread since it has been going on for the last several weeks,” said JoAnna Wagner, RN infection prevention manager and patient safety officer at Oconee Regional Medical Center (ORMC). “We certainly seem to be experiencing earlier onset of the flu and we’re seeing an increase from about six weeks ago.”

The flu is a contagious disease caused by the influenza virus, which spreads through coughing, sneezing or nasal secretions. For most people, symptoms last a few days and include fever, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, cough, headache and runny or stuffy nose.

We know that not everyone will get vaccinated for the flu this year. If you choose to skip the vaccine, we encourage you to stay home if you get sick. Do not come to work or school and risk spreading the virus to others. If you decide to gamble with your own health, please don’t gamble with the health of your loved ones and co-workers. They deserve better; protect them, too,” said Dr. David Harvey, health director for the North Central Health District (NCHD), which includes the Baldwin County Health Department. “We also encourage everyone to remember basic hygiene rules. Wash your hands often; cough and sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow. These tips sound basic, but they are a great way to stop the spread of many diseases, not just flu.”

Peak flu season in Georgia usually occurs in late January and early February and can last well into March. However, given the early and intense start of this flu season, it could last longer this year.

“We’re reminding people that we don’t know when the peak of the flu is going to come. Historically, the flu season in Georgia is in late January to early February,” said Jennifer Jones, public information officer for NCHD. “It’s not too late to get the flu shot. After receiving a flu shot, it can take up to two weeks for your body to build enough antibodies to fight the flu. For people who may be worried that the flu season will get worse, now is a great time because we’re still weeks away from what may be the peak of the flu season in Georgia.”

ORMC officials plan to help limit the risk of flu exposure to patients, visitors and hospital staff by restricting certain visitors. Starting Monday, all visitors must be at least 17 years old to enter patient treatment areas at ORMC, Jasper Memorial Hospital, the Oconee Wound Healing Center, the Oconee Cancer Treatment Center, and the Oconee Sleep and Wellness Center. Visitors who exhibit flu-like symptoms will also not be allowed to visit patients.

“The restriction will last until further notice or until the flu season is over. It just depends on how activity is looking around the state and in our area locally since the season and symptoms started sooner than they typically do. We did the same type of restriction during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009,” Wagner said. “We’re trying to limit transmission of the flu and help patients from additional illnesses and further complications. Patient safety is very important to us.”

Exceptions may be allowed on the age restriction policy, but will be determined on a case-by-case basis, such as for a child whose parent or guardian is currently admitted or using outpatient services, or if a child has a critically-ill family member at the hospital or one with a life-threatening illness.

“The vaccine is available at the health department, most retail pharmacies and physician offices. The ones who are at higher risk for complications as a result of the flu are those who are pregnant, really young, advanced age or have a chronic illness, such as asthma or heart disease,” Wagner said. “The recommendation remains that it’s not too late to get vaccinated.”

Experts say this year may not turn out to be unusually deadly. Roughly 100 children die in an average flu season, and it's not clear that will happen this year. On average, an estimated 24,000 Americans die each flu season. Elderly people with chronic health conditions are at greatest risk.

“I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary this year, but two to three years ago, it was really bad. We sent dozens of students home who had positive flu-like symptoms,” said Chris Smith, school nurse for Creekside and Blandy elementary schools. “The local health department comes to the schools and gives students flu shots with their parents’ permission. This year I’ve just seen more of a stomach virus.”

Health officials urge everyone over the age of 6 months to get a flu shot, especially children, people age 65 and older, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions, such as heart, lung or kidney disease or a weakened immune system. 

“We have options to get vaccinated. You can get the vaccine sprayed in the nose, but it has a very weakened live virus, so we recommend the spray for those ages 2 to 49 who are healthy with no chronic illnesses. If you choose to get the flu shot, it’s a killed virus but there’s enough of it that your body will build resistance against the flu. We also have a high-dose version, which is recommended for people who are older with a slower immune system,” Jones said. “The fee for the vaccine is $25, unless covered by Medicaid, Medicare Part B, or a state health benefit plan.”

The Baldwin County Health Department accepts walk-ins from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. No appointment is required.

For more information about getting vaccinated, call the health department at (478) 445-4274.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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