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Current flu season could be W.Va.'s worst in years

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Health officials say apart from the H1N1 "swine flu" season in 2009, the 2012-13 flu season may be the worst they've seen in the past 10 years.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the cases are rising more quickly than they did during in the 2011-12 flu season.

"And the flu activity we're seeing this year, we're seeing the highest activity in a decade besides H1N1," he said.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources on Friday reported that in West Virginia "there have only been 1,393 reported confirmed cases this season."

"While flu is reported to be widespread across the state, West Virginia's data indicates 1,393 confirmed cases," said Dr. Marian Swinker, state health officer and commissioner of the Bureau for Public Health. "The important health message right now for the public is that influenza is preventable."

But those confirmed cases represent only a portion of the number of cases in the community, Gupta said.

Confirmed cases of the flu are laboratory-tested and verified to be the influenza virus.

Not every case is confirmed, though, Gupta said.

"If you start testing every case we will exhaust our resources," Gupta said.

Many physicians use a nasal swab and not a laboratory to confirm the flu, said Janet Briscoe, director of epidemiology for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

"Having [around] 1,500 confirmed flu cases does not by any means indicate that's all there is in the community," Briscoe said.

Healthy people often do not seek medical attention for the flu and therefore those numbers would not be confirmed either, Gupta said.

Until December, there were no confirmed cases of the flu in Kanawha County, she said.

The flu season started earlier in the calendar than it usually does and it probably has not yet peaked, she said.

"I don't want anyone to panic," Briscoe said. "I want people to be prepared and do what they can to prevent it. We do know this season it's still in the community."

A typical flu season lasts 12 weeks, Briscoe said.

Besides confirmed cases, 15,306 West Virginians reported influenzalike illnesses to their health-care providers in December and another 4,389 reported illnesses in January, according to DHHR.

Flulike illnesses could be the flu, winter colds or another virus.

Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the flu has reached epidemic levels.

At Thomas Memorial Hospital, 56 people have so far been admitted because of the flu, spokeswoman Paige Johnson said. At Saint Francis Hospital, there have been another 40, she said.

The numbers of admissions due to flu last year were not available, but Johnson said there was a significant increase over last year.

The number of flu cases at Charleston Area Medical Center hospitals was not available.

According to the CDC, 47 states -- including West Virginia -- reported widespread flu activity. The illness has killed 20 children nationwide so far this season.

Health officials recommend getting a flu shot and taking other precautions to avoid getting the virus.

"What I do think from my experience is that people need to do all the preventative measures they can and that includes the flu vaccination," Briscoe said. "People can prevent [the flu] or at least prevent serious illness by getting the flu [shot]."

While people with compromised immune systems especially need the vaccine, even healthy people should get a flu shot, because they may transmit the illness to people who are less healthy, she said.

The Health Department has given nearly 14,000 vaccines to the community and still has plenty available, Gupta said. This year's vaccine is 62 percent effective, meaning that two of three people who are vaccinated and encounter the virus will not get sick. The third person is not likely to experience severe symptoms, Gupta said.

People who are sick with the flu should stay home to avoid transmitting the illness, Gupta said. People also should wash their hands frequently.

Health officials are monitoring the flu situation closely, Gupta said.

"We're taking this seriously," Gupta said. "We've seen this movie before and it doesn't turn out well if you don't take people's health seriously."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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