The number of Central Oregon flu cases so far in January has already climbed past the total for the month of December, according to numbers provided Thursday by St. Charles Health System.
“It's moderate, but we are definitely seeing an increase in flu cases,” said Jonathan Modie, spokesman for the Oregon Public Health Division. “It's not an unusual year but we certainly have seen a rise and we have not peaked. We may not know for several more weeks when we'll peak.”
Flu vaccine is still available and plentiful, according to Oregon public health officials, and Tamiflu, the prescription medication that inhibits the flu virus' ability to replicate, is also readily available in Oregon. Health officials urged those who have not been vaccinated to get vaccinated.
Thus far in January, St. Charles hospitals in Bend, Prineville and Redmond administered 232 tests for influenza, which yielded 88 positive indications of the disease, according to St. Charles spokeswoman Lisa Goodman. In December, the hospitals administered 256 tests that found 54 cases of flu.
“Our emergency rooms and immediate care have seen a steady increase of patients seeking care for influenza-like illness or influenza,” she said by email. “At times they have reached capacity.”
Hospital admissions for the flu are also up, she said.
Bend Memorial Clinic, which also operates clinics in Redmond and Sisters, reported an increase in the number of influenza-like cases, said Christy McLeod, BMC marketing director. She said the precise numbers of cases were not available Thursday afternoon.
No deaths were reported locally from influenza. The Oregon Public Health Division tracks only deaths of children from the flu, none of which have occurred in this latest round.
Modie said reports from about 22 health-care providers around the state show 5.6 percent of outpatient cases are being treated for the flu or flu-like symptoms. The nationwide rate is also 5.6 percent, he said. During the 2009 influenza pandemic, 8 percent of all outpatient cases were flu cases, Modie said.
Modie said the flu season is considered under way once the number of outpatient cases reaches 1.5 percent.
“It is not at any kind of critical level at this point but we continue to monitor it, track it as much as we can,” he said.
Dr. Paul Cieslak, manager of the communicable diseases prevention section of the Oregon Public Health Division, said this year is shaping up so far as more or less normal.
“For the past four seasons, influenza has peaked in February or March. This year if things continue to go this way, it will be either January or February,” he said Thursday. “It's a little early but not terribly so. Four or five years ago, it peaked in January or December.”
Oregon, Washington and California are coming late into flu season, Cieslak said. The flu strain currently afflicting the population is H3N2; the H1N1 strain was responsible for the 2009 pandemic. The vaccination available this year incorporates three strains, including H3N2 and H1N1, Cieslak said. The vaccine is about 70 percent effective in healthy people.
However, for those most susceptible to dying of influenza — infants and people over 65 — the vaccine is least effective. Infants less than 6 months old cannot be vaccinated.
“Everyone else needs to be vaccinated,” the doctor said. “If we can knock down the flu, it's a lot less likely we'll expose other people.”
Influenza kills about 23,000 people nationwide each year, he said. Normally, 90 percent of deaths occur among people 65 and over. Deaths due to cardiac and respiratory failure, systems affected by influenza, increase during flu season.
The flu is more or less expected every year, he said. “The flu has long been a mystery,” Cieslak said. “It comes through every year and kills thousands of people and puts thousands more in the hospital. Maybe it doesn't get the respect it deserves.”
Across the nation, an early outbreak threatens to make this year's influenza season one of the most difficult in recent years, and public health officials are bracing for the worst.
• At least 38 states have reported widespread flu outbreaks, about five weeks ahead of the average flu season — the earliest in almost a decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measures flu activity levels, from minimum to high, by the percentage of outpatient hospital visits compared with the fall/spring average.
• Nationally, more than 2,250 people have been hospitalized. The proportion of people complaining of flu-like symptoms who visited health care providers is 5.6 percent, almost double the norm. Updated national statistics are scheduled to be released today.
• The flu is especially bad in the Northeast, where hospitals are reporting record numbers of emergency room visits. Boston has declared a public health emergency and is offering free flu shots; at least 700 cases have been confirmed there, 10 times the year before, and four people have died. In hard-hit Pennsylvania, a hospital was forced to set up an emergency treatment tent to handle the influx of patients.
• Europe is also suffering an early flu season, though a milder strain predominates there. Flu reports are up, too, in China, Japan and Africa.
• A flu shot remains the best tool to stop the spread of the flu, according to the CDC — along with covering your mouth when coughing, and washing your hands. It usually takes a couple of weeks for the vaccination to become effective, meaning that having an injection today will offer some protection through the upcoming peak season. Vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older.
• The dominant flu strain that's been reported so far has been the Type A influenza known as H3N2. Officials maintain that the current vaccine is a good match.
• On average, the annual flu misery affects one in five people in the U.S., with 24,000 dying each year from the illness or its complications, such as pneumonia or severe dehydration. More than $10 billion is lost, primarily in wages, because of the illness.
The flu, or something else?
Influenza and the common cold are caused by different viruses but can have some similar symptoms, making them tough to tell apart. In general, the flu is worse and symptoms are more intense.
Colds: Usual symptoms include stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and sneezing. Coughs are hacking and productive. It's unusual to have fever, chills, headaches and body aches, and if they do occur, they are mild.
Flu: Fever is usually present, along with chills, headaches, body aches and fatigue. Symptoms can come on rapidly, within three to six hours. Coughs are dry and unproductive, and sore throats are less common.
Prevention: To avoid either illness, wash your hands with warm water and soap after you've been out in public or around sick people. Don't share cups or utensils. Get a flu vaccination.
Treatment: For mild cases, get plenty of rest and fluids. For severe symptoms, such as a high fever or difficulty breathing, see a doctor, who may prescribe antiviral drugs or other meds.