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Flu Season Spike Means It's Time to Take Precautions

by on January 18, 2015 10:00 AM

As the Northeast region shivers under a blanket of blistering winds and chilly temperatures, one culprit of the winter blues is rising to extreme heights this season -- the flu.

The highly contagious virus that passes through handshakes and sneezes has swept across the region, leaving residents battling its symptoms and health providers scrambling to treat the ill.

The early number of cases, a mutant-like virus, and a semi-effective vaccine aren't aiding their efforts either.

Medical teams at the Mount Nittany Medical Center have already seen a spike in both the severity and number of influenza cases in Center County compared to the 2013-14 season.

The center has treated 140 positive cases of the flu this season, says Marlene Stetson, the hospital's Director of Infection Prevention and Control. The surge of cases spiked around Dec. 10, two weeks earlier than the peak of cases last year.

Throughout last season, the center treated 190 positive cases, a number that is likely to be matched or exceeded if the flu isn't prevented through vaccine treatments.

Mount Nittany's records aren't the only indication that the flu has rocked the region. Reports from the Pennsylvania Department of Health reveal that 338 positive flu cases in Centre County.

State health officials were only aware of five cases before Dec. 6, but a wave of the sickness started around mid-December.

Holli Senior, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, says those numbers are "likely a fraction of what is actually circulating."

According to Senior, many cases go unreported because sick people don't always go to the doctor and doctors don't always report cases to the department.

"It's widespread in the commonwealth. We're seeing it in every county," Senior says. "But we're certainly hopeful that it's the peak."

It's hard to tell if a peak is truly in sight, she adds, seeing as this year's vaccine has proven less than successful for many people across the nation.

Each February, an influenza vaccine is developed by scientists based on which strains of the influenza virus are circulating in other parts of the world. Trivalent vaccines, the most common, are intended to protect against two types of A influenza viruses and one type of B influenza virus.

However, a type A virus, H3N2, that was supposed to be prevented by the vaccine "drifted" or mutated into a new strain that isn't included in this year's approved flu vaccine, according to the Center for Disease Control's website.

Nearly 93 percent of reported positive flu cases in Pennsylvania have been caused by a type A influenza virus, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health's website. Based on national test results, the department estimates about half of those cases were caused by this changed strain.

Both Senior and Stetson say you should take precautions for the remainder of the flu season by washing your hands, cleaning surfaces and sneezing and coughing into your sleeve.

They also encourage anyone who hasn't been vaccinated to visit their personal care provider or local pharmacies for a shot, despite the claims of ineffectiveness. The vaccine can still prevent severe symptoms and lessen the chance of hospitalization.

Most importantly, they advise that anyone experiencing respiratory distress symptoms, dehydration, and other flu-like symptoms should remain at home to avoid spreading the virus.

"I think we underestimate the severity and magnitude of the illness. You're not sick for a day or so, it's not true," Stetson says.  "Don't delay. Get the vaccine."



Carley Mossbrook is an intern for StateCollege.com. She is also a junior at Penn State studying digital and print journalism. When Carley isn't hunched over her reporter's notebook, she can be found in the kitchen whipping up her latest recipe or relaxing alongside her Puggle Wyn.
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