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'Busy' early flu season hits schools

Longview News-Journal - 12/21/2017

Avoid the flu

How to protect yourself and others against the flu, from the Centers for Disease Control:

Get a flu shot.

Cover your cough or sneeze - use a tissue or the crook of your elbow. Don't cough or sneeze into your hands.

Wash your hands often with soap and water.

Stay home if you have flu-like symptoms except to seek medical care and necessities - and stay home for at least 24 hours after you're fever-free without the use of medicine that lowers your fever.

Avoid close contact with sick people.

Clean surfaces that might have been in contact with germs.

Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth.

Flu season is knocking earlier than usual this year, with medical professionals advising it's not too late to be vaccinated.

"This is going to be a very busy season of illness," said Stephanie Foster, chief nursing officer for Longview Regional Medical Center.

On Tuesday, she said 28 percent of people who showed up to Regional's emergency room with flu-like symptoms tested positive for flu A/B viruses.

"Local pharmacies have warned that they may run low on Tamiflu (an antiviral flu medicine), and wait times might be long to fill a prescription," she said.

Dr. Benjamin Cameron, an internal medicine physician with Christus Trinity Clinic in Longview, said his office started seeing flu cases during the past week and a half.

"It's definitely coming earlier," he said. "Usually we start seeing it ramp up in January or sometimes even as late as February."

Total figures on how many people have contracted the flu aren't available because it's not an illness that's required to be reported to health officials, said Lara Anton, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

A network of hospitals and other providers report information voluntarily, but it's not a complete picture.

It provides an idea of where and what types of flu are circulating.

The increase in flu cases is happening statewide, Anton said, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting an increase in cases nationwide as well, based on information through Dec. 9.

"Seasonal influenza activity continues to increase in the United States," according to a report from the agency. "The proportion of people seeing their health care provider for influenza-like-illness increased sharply from last week and has been at or above the national baseline for three weeks so far this season."

Some area school districts have seen more absences because of flu. White Oak ISD canceled school two days a week ago because of flu and strep.

Longview ISD, on the other hand, on Wednesday reported no dip in attendance.

Hallsville schools, though, were looking forward to Christmas break as illness increased there.

"We are definitely seeing an early impact of the flu season," Superintendent Jeff Collum said Wednesday. "HISD has experienced a dip in attendance over the past few days due to student illness. We have some campuses this week dipping into the 89 percent to 90 percent attendance range, but our district attendance rate overall has averaged between 92 percent to 94 percent.

"We hope that over the next few weeks of Christmas break, our students and staff can gain some much-needed rest and recovery. With only a day and a half of school left in the week prior to Christmas break, we hope to finish the week strong."

Cameron said most of the people he's seen with flu did not get the flu vaccine, although one of 10 people diagnosed in his office in the past week and a half did.

"It can and it does happen where you still get the flu when you get the flu shot," he said.

However, he said people who get ill with the flu after having a flu vaccine have a less severe illness.

"I highly recommend people continue to get the flu shot," Cameron said.

He advised the best time to get a flu shot is toward the beginning or middle of October, to provide protection through the entire flu season.

It's not possible to predict what flu viruses will be most predominant during flu season, said Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases within the CDC.

The vaccine's effectiveness varies from year to year among age and risk groups and the match between the virus used to make the vaccine and the viruses that circulate.

A recent news report about a 10 percent effectiveness of the flu vaccine referred to an "interim estimate" of the flu vaccine's effectiveness in Australia during its most recent flu season.

The percentage referred to the effectiveness against one particular flu virus - H3N2, she said.

"In the United States last season, overall vaccine effectiveness against all circulating flu viruses (that includes the influenza A and B viruses) was 39 percent, and (vaccine effectiveness) was only a bit lower (32 percent) against H3N2 viruses," Nordlund said. "This season's flu vaccine includes the same H3N2 vaccine component that was in last season's vaccine, and most circulating H3N2 viruses that have been tested in the United States this season are still similar to the H3N2 vaccine virus.

"Based on this data, CDC believes U.S. (vaccine effectiveness) estimates from last season are likely to be a better predictor of the flu vaccine benefits to expect this season against circulating H3N2 viruses in the United States."

A flu vaccine is the first and most important step in protecting against flu, she said.

"However, if you do get the flu, antiviral drugs can be used to treat your illness," Nordlund said. "Antiviral drugs can make your illness milder and shorten the time you're sick."

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