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Flu season off to early start; how to help stem the outbreak

Flu preventimaentrance Christ Hospital Oak Lawn Illinois. | File photo

Flu prevention at the main entrance to Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois. | File photo

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Is it flu or cold?

Dr. Humaira Khan, of MetroSouth Health Center in Alsip, said many people come in not knowing if they have a cold or the flu. The flu, she said, is much more severe.

Flu comes on abruptly, with a fever lasting three to four days. Body aches can be severe, and chills, chest discomfort and headache are common.

A cold takes over gradually. Sneezing, stuffy nose and sore throat are common symptoms. Fever is rare, aches are slight and chills are uncommon.

Updated: February 8, 2013 6:07AM



A jump in the number of people complaining about cold and flu-like symptoms prompted doctors at the MetroSouth Health Center outpatient clinic in Alsip to stay open Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.

Dr. Humaira Khan, a family practitioner there, said she and her partner have been seeing at least six cases of flu-like symptoms a day at the center. Many of the sufferers have been children, she said.

Chicago has been one of the hardest-hit parts of the country in terms of the flu, according to Tom Skinner, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While this season may not be worse than previous flu seasons, Skinner said, it did get off to an early start, with the first cases showing up in early November. Since the flu generally sticks around until the end of February, this can be a long, sickly winter for northern Illinoisans.

“Activity is definitely picking up,” Skinner said. During years in which the H3N2 strain dominates, such as this year, he said, “We tend to see more kids and elderly people affected.”

According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, 6 percent of emergency department visits and 7.5 percent of outpatient visits to Chicago hospitals were attributed to influenza-like illnesses during December. A year ago, that number was about 2 percent for the emergency department and between 2 percent and 3 percent for outpatient.

Docs: Get immunized

What’s worse than getting the flu? Giving it to someone who isn’t strong enough to fend it off.

Dr. Stephen Sokalski, chief of infectious disease at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, said doctors have gone beyond recommending the flu shot simply for self-protection from the uncomfortable symptoms the infection causes. They now emphasize “cocoon immunization.”

“Everyone around high-risk individuals needs to get vaccinated,” Sokalski said. That means health care workers, caretakers and family members.

Because a person is contagious well before symptoms are evident, he or she unknowingly and unintentionally can infect someone who has an underlying condition, such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes.

Unprotected individuals can lead to overwhelmed communities.

At MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island, health care workers are strongly encouraged to get a flu shot, said Dr. Eric B. Nussbaum, chairman of the emergency department.

“It’s critically important to get as many people as possible immunized,” Nussbaum said.

He said doctors at MetroSouth are seeing a lot of people with influenza. Most complain of fever, muscle aches and chills.

“We’re also seeing a lot of gastrointestinal symptoms this year, especially in children,” he said.

Advocate’s Sokalski said it’s not too late to get a flu shot.

“Get the shot now, and a week from now you may be partially protected,” he said.

The vaccine, he said, protects against most H3N2 viruses. In most cases, he said, immunized people who do get flu-like symptoms typically get them with reduced severity.

The argument that getting the shot will cause you to get the flu is false, he said.

“The vaccine is not a live virus,” he said. “You may get some mild symptoms but you will not get the flu from the vaccine.”

Advocate’s doctors and nurses practice what they preach. Sokalski said this is the second year that all health care workers in the Advocate health care system have been required to get the flu shot.

“Vaccination is critical to the prevention of disease and protection of our patients,” he said. “More than 98 percent of workers who have patient contact have complied.”

The increased rate of protection not only helps stem transmission from health care worker to patient, it cuts down on the absentee rate among workers during an outbreak, when more help is needed.

Some are more susceptible

People who already are sick, or who have compromised immune systems, are very susceptible to influenza, even if they’ve had a flu shot, Sokalski said. That includes your kids, your grandmother and any already ill people who may come in contact with your germs, perhaps by using the same phone, the same handrail or the same computer mouse.

“High-risk people can’t tolerate infections, and when they get the flu they have very high mortality rates,” he said.

As miserable as the symptoms can be for healthy people, influenza can mean death for those whose systems already are compromised.

“In any given season,” Skinner said, “thousands die from influenza and hundreds of thousands are hospitalized.”

Those who start to feel sick, Sokalski said, should contact their doctor for antiviral drugs, such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu), which is taken orally, and zanamivir, an inhalant. It’s important to note, however, that antiviral medications are not a cure; they simply reduce the severity of symptoms, and only if taken within the first 24 to 48 hours.

There is no explanation thus far as to why this flu season got off to an early start, Sokalski said. Nor is there any way of telling how soon it will go away.

Take heed, however, that sometimes as influenza A exits, influenza B kicks in, Sokalski said.



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