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Health officials urge influenza shots during this early flu season

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- December has started off abnormally in West Virginia, as temperatures have topped 70 degrees while a Kanawha County day care reported the state's first influenza outbreak of the season.

Janet Briscoe, director of epidemiology for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said an administrator from the day care reported the outbreak because "she knew that the kids had been tested and she saw this respiratory illness in several kids in the classroom."

The day care is not being identified at this time, Briscoe said.

Shannon McBee, influenza coordinator with the Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology for the state Bureau for Public Health, said West Virginia is experiencing an early influenza season.

The number of people sick with the flu continues to increase throughout the state, she said, and it is "unusual to see this much influenza this early in December."

West Virginia typically does not see confirmed flu cases until late December, with the peak stretching from the middle of January through February, she said.

With warmer temperatures, people are more likely to be around family, friends and others as they enjoy holiday activities in their communities, McBee said.

"What you're seeing locally is that you are having more community events. When it's cold outside, people are going to be inside and keeping to themselves," McBee said. "When you have more people out and about, that's more germs and viruses circulating."

The early flu season has spread across the nation, too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. West Virginia and 47 other states and Puerto Rico have reported cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza, according to the CDC's weekly surveillance report, which was published Nov. 30.

State health officials are only reporting sporadic activity to the CDC until the number of individuals reporting flu-like symptoms to doctors increases, McBee said.

Sporadic activity is "small numbers of laboratory-confirmed influenza cases or a single laboratory-confirmed influenza outbreak has been reported," the CDC website states.

McBee said five out of eight regions across the state have had positive influenza specimens in state laboratories.

Kanawha-Charleston Health Department officials warned residents on Wednesday about the increase in influenza illnesses in the area.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director at the health department, said there has been a "sudden spike in influenza H3N2, a subtype of the Influenza A virus." The flu shot being administered locally is a "good match" to fight this strain, Gupta said.

About 13,000 vaccines have been distributed through the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and school clinics, he said.

But for those who still haven't been given their flu shot, Gupta warns, "It's going to get worse."

"The flu shot works this season. Go get your flu shot because there's still plenty of time to get protected," he said. "During the holidays, we want families mingling with each other and to have fun and not to be sick in bed. For that to happen, they have to get their flu shots now."

It takes two weeks for the body to react to a flu shot, he said.

This week -- Dec. 2 to Dec. 8 -- is National Influenza Vaccination Week, which should encourage more people to get their vaccination, McBee said.

Everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot, McBee said.

The most infectious places are day cares, schools, nursing homes and hospitals, Gupta said.

Children and the elderly are the most susceptible to the flu, McBee said.

"Influenza can cause death and it's nothing to be taken lightly in order to protect children and the elderly," McBee said. "It's a preventable illness and only takes a couple minutes to get a flu shot. It can really make the difference between someone living and someone dying."

In Putnam County, reports of influenza aren't any higher than in previous years, according to Seth Henson, a registered nurse with the Putnam County Health Department.

"As far as in this county, nothing is really out of the ordinary," Henson said.

Staff at the Putnam health department took preventative steps to ensure workplaces with large numbers of employees got vaccinated early, he said.

"I have heard that the number of cases is higher nationally, but we can only wait and see," Henson said.

Last year was an "extremely mild season" for the flu in West Virginia, McBee said. About 47 percent of adult West Virginians were vaccinated against the flu for the 2011-2012 season.

The Kanawha-Charleston Health Department's 2012-2013 flu campaign, "Take 3 Actions to Fight the Flu," will continue into the beginning of next year. Every weekday from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., residents can get a vaccination on a walk-in basis at the department offices at 108 Lee St. E. in Charleston. Patients' insurance can be billed. The private-pay cost is $36.

Gupta said people also could go to their physician's office, local pharmacies and health departments to get the flu shot.

For more information call the KCHD Flu Hotline at 304-348-6882 or visit kchdwv.org.

Staff writer Kate White contributed. Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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