Taking a stand against the flu

flu shotWith 1,676 laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza already reported in the state as of Thursday, Jan. 10, the state health department and local health officials are encouraging people to get flu shots and to take precautions.

Dr. Patrick Broderick, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Danbury Hospital, stressed these are only the cases that have been reported.

“Lots of flu cases never go fully reported,” he said. “But the barometer of cases reported are well ahead of last year.”

Dr. Broderick said Fairfield and New Haven counties have had the highest reported cases so far this year.

“Unlike the H1N1 virus we had a couple years ago, this does not seem to be particularly affecting any age group. H1N1 was found more in the pediatric population. It affected children much more. This is affecting the general population,” he said.

Dr. Christopher Michos, Easton’s director of health, sent a letter to all residents and parents in Easton alerting them about flu activity in the state. The primary prevention to not contracting the flu virus is by getting a flu vaccination.

“Although no vaccine is 100% effective in preventing disease, the influenza vaccine is safe and, in most cases, it will reduce the likelihood or severity of an influenza infection, should you be exposed,” it said in the letter. “Mild flu-like symptoms can follow a vaccination but is not the same as true influenza.”

Easton’s Health Officer Polly Edwards said the health department’s message is to encourage people to get the vaccine and for people to stay home if they are ill.

Ms. Edwards said that residents can get vaccinated at their doctor’s office, at a pharmacy or at the Westport-Weston Health District, which still has a supply of vaccines.

Children from six months to 18 years old, women who will be pregnant during the flu season and people at least 50 years of age should get the flu vaccine. Also, people with chronic medical conditions and those who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. The vaccine is usually covered by insurance. The cost without coverage is $35 for the shot and $40 for the nasal mist.

“It’s not too late to vaccinate yourself,” said Dr. Broderick. “It does take two to four weeks to acquire some immunity, but the flu season will continue through February and March.”

What complicates this flu is there are other flus mixed in, such as the Norwalk Virus, a gastrointestinal virus which some people call the stomach flu, but it is different from the seasonal flu.

Secondary prevention would be limiting contact with people who have the flu, he said. Adults or children who have the flu should not go to work or school.

“That just becomes a vector of spreading it to the community,” said Dr. Broderick. “Control your social interaction with people who are ill.”

Health officials urge people to wash their hands with soap and water or use antibacterial gel and cover their cough by coughing or sneezing into the crook of their elbow, not their hands.

Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth and wiping down cell phones and computer keyboards are also preventative steps.

“If you do become ill, quarantine yourself at home so you aren’t out and about being a vector,” said Dr. Broderick.

Dr. Broderick said differing from the common cold, this flu virus is associated with fevers over 101 degrees, chills, body aches, cough, sore throat, and overwhelming fatigue being the predominant symptom.

“For influenza it is a viral strain. There is no antibiotic for it but there are anti-viral medications that can be prescribed within 48 hours of onset symptoms,” he said.

Tamiflu has been given to flu patients over the last couple of years, he said.

“Because of the limited amount of anti-viral medication, we do try to reserve it for elderly or immune-compromised patients,” he said.

The cure for the “average, healthy adult without diabetes, emphysema or congestive heart failure, most will do fine with bed rest, fluids, an over the counter fever reducer like Tylenol or Advil and a cough suppressant,” he said. “People more at risk would get an anti-viral medication.”

Dr. Broderick is also discouraging people from going to the hospital for just the simple flu.

“The reason for that is the emergency departments are very overwhelmed with regular emergency cases, then adding the spike of flu illness and the Norwalk Virus, there are longer wait times in the emergency room, which increases the number of patients in the emergency department who are a vector to spread influenza to people at a greater risk,” said Dr. Broderick.

He is advising people that if they don’t have other associated health conditions and have the flu to stay home, rest, take fluids, control the fever and contact their primary care physician for further instructions.

“We don’t want a mass panic of people going to the hospital if they have the flu. It’ll worsen the situation and spread the flu to the community,” said Dr. Broderick. “Everyone is susceptible to getting the flu.”

School administrators and teachers are advising students and parents to stay home if they have the flu or flu-like symptoms.

Massachusetts and other metropolitan areas have declared a public health emergency with the flu outbreak, said Dr. Broderick.

“We’re trying to stay ahead of that. We’re getting the awareness out to the communities and advising people to stay home if you are sick,” he said.

Editor Nancy Doniger contributed to this report.

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