Health & Medicine

Flu widespread in Kentucky, but health professionals are managing

17-year-old Yesenia Torres laughed while covering her eyes before  receiving a flu shot from Elizabeth Pfeffer at Free Flu Friday, a  free one-day clinic sponsored by The Lexington-Fayette County  Health Department, held at department s Public Health North Campus,  805-A Newtown Circle in Lexington, Ky., Friday, October, 14, 2011.  They hoped to give 2,000 free flu shots today. Charles Bertram oe  Staff
17-year-old Yesenia Torres laughed while covering her eyes before receiving a flu shot from Elizabeth Pfeffer at Free Flu Friday, a free one-day clinic sponsored by The Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, held at department s Public Health North Campus, 805-A Newtown Circle in Lexington, Ky., Friday, October, 14, 2011. They hoped to give 2,000 free flu shots today. Charles Bertram oe Staff

Even with widespread flu outbreaks reported in 47 states, including Kentucky, health providers in Central Kentucky are managing the higher-than-normal levels.

"They seem to have been able to meet the surge," said Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, the state epidemiologist for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that only three states do not have widespread flu activity: California, Hawaii and Mississippi, although Mississippi is on a separate list of states with high flu activity.

Kentucky has had widespread flu activity for five weeks, Humbaugh said. Widespread flu means more than half of the districts in a geographic area have heavy number of flu cases. What's happening in Kentucky is happening across the country.

"Most of the country is seeing a lot of flu, and this may continue for several weeks," Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, said during a teleconference Friday. "We don't know if we are over the peak."

Flu cases typically peak in mid-February, but this flu season started about a month earlier than usual. The current flu outbreak is, as it usually does, rolling across the country from east to west. The mayor of Boston declared a flu emergency this week following a surge of 700 cases, but the number of cases along the West Coast remain relatively low compared to the rest of the country, Frieden said.

Health providers encourage the public to get a flu shot to prevent the illness. It generally takes about two weeks for a flu vaccine to be most effective, Frieden said. Getting the shot in mid January might seem too late, but it's "better late than never," he said.

The CDC has found that the current flu vaccine is 62 percent effective, meaning if you get vaccinated, you are 62 percent less likely to get the flu. That compares to 90 percent effectiveness rates for childhood vaccines, such as those given to ward off chicken pox, Frieden said.

"The flu vaccine is far from perfect, but it is still by far the best thing we have to prevent the flu," he said.

Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the CDC's Epidemiology and Prevention Branch, Influenza Division, said health professionals "want a better vaccine," but one of the challenges is that the flu virus is always changing.

Nonetheless, the protection afforded by the current vaccine is an important public health tool, Bresee said. The flu can be serious, especially in senior citizens, those with other chronic health problems and children. This season's outbreak has led to the deaths of 20 children so far.

There have been some spot shortages of vaccines, Frieden said, and it might be necessary to call multiple providers before finding a dose. Humbaugh said there have been no reported shortages of vaccine in Kentucky, although some individual doctors' office might already have given out the doses they were given earlier in the season.

Despite that, only about half of Americans get vaccinated, Frieden said. In Kentucky, only about a third of adults get vaccinated, Humbaugh said.

It's important that people with flu symptoms seek treatment. Anti-virals such as Tamiflu can be effective in reducing the most serious symptoms, Frieden said.

"If you get flu-like symptoms, it can really help you avoid serious illness, hospitalization or even death," he said.

Across the country, there have been some reports of shortages of anti-virals for children. Bresee said doctors can create a pediatric dose by using a portion of an adult dose. Humbaugh said there have been no such shortages in Kentucky.

Dr. Jeffrey Bennett, a pediatrician with UKHealthCare, said parents should get vaccinated themselves and for children older than 6 months.

If a child shows flu symptoms, keep him comfortable and hydrated and get him to a doctor within the first few days of symptoms so he can be treated with anti-viral drugs which are more effective if given with 48 hours of the onset of the flu.

Keep a child home if she still has a fever, Bennett said. A child should be without fever for 24 hours before she returns to school or day care. Feverish adults should stay home to keep from infecting others.

Humbaugh said those reluctant to get a flu shot can ask for alternatives, such as vaccine given as a nasal mist. The important thing, he said, is for people to get vaccinated.

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