Flu season is starting early this year, with a sharp increase in the number of local cases reported in January, as compared with last year, local health officials said.
Last year during the first two weeks of January, the Cameron County health department had confirmed less than 10 cases of flu, an official said. During the first two weeks of this January, more than 70 cases of flu have been confirmed by the department alone, county Health and Human Services Department spokeswoman Sandra de la Cruz said.
“We also keep track of flu-like illnesses. So this time last year, we were looking at something below 200; this year we are over 500, more than double,” she said of the department’s tracking.
Dr. Robert Holder, a Harlingen physician, said it is true there is a big uptick in the number of flu cases and cases that might be influenza.
“I would say that I myself have seen quite a few strains of viral illness,” Holder said. “I’m not necessarily calling them the flu, because they don’t have all of the typical flu-like symptoms.
“I talked with an emergency room physician at Harlingen Medical Center today and she said, that, yes, they are seeing flu in both adults and children at an increased rate.”
A spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services said Thursday that persons who have already had a flu shot are protected against the two types of influenza present in Texas this year.
The most common flu vaccine being used this year is well-matched for the two varieties of flu present in the state, agency spokesman Chris Van Deusen said.
The vaccine still available at many doctors’ offices and pharmacies is effective for Influenza B and H2N2 influenza, which are both widespread around Texas, he said.
A vaccine is formulated each year for three strains of flu, so the commonly available vaccine should handle this year’s variant of flu, he said.
State officials have been assured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the available vaccine will be effective, Van Deusen said.
Whether an unusually bad outbreak of flu is occurring this year, or if flu season is just peaking early, is not yet known, Van Deusen said.
“Usually February is the peak, but we’re seeing a high level now,” he said.
Whether flu cases will begin to taper off or if the number will still increase is not yet known, he said.
“I think the word epidemic is too strong,” Van Deusen said of the large number of cases reported.
People who must be especially careful to avoid getting the flu include those who are diabetic, those who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or other lung ailments, people with compromised immune systems, heart conditions, pregnant women, heavy smokers, young children and the elderly, Van Deusen said.
“People should still get their flu vaccine,” Holder, the Harlingen doctor, said. “If they haven’t gotten it, they should still get it now.”
Although many doctor’s offices have run out of vaccine, major drug store chains such as CVS and Walgreen’s still have supplies, he said.
“But call first,” Holder said. Not only are some drug stores running out of vaccine, a specially trained pharmacist must be present to administer the vaccine, he said.
Michael Muniz, of Muniz Rio Grande Pharmacy in Harlingen, said pharmacists must go through special training in order to give the injections.
Some drugstores have been running out of the vaccine and his store has had to restock vaccine and Tamiflu every few days, he said. “We’re really going through a lot of it.”
Most people should have already had their flu shots by now but, if not, they should still get one because flu season lasts until May, Holder said.
It is important for anyone who notices flu symptoms, such as chills, sweating and fever, to go to their doctor’s office to get an antiviral shot, such as Tamiflu, within 24 to 48 hours of first noticing symptoms to shorten the duration and severity of the illness, Holder said.
Some people who have weak immune systems might receive a nasal mist flue vaccine instead of an injection, Holder said.
People who are allergic to eggs, or who have a high fever, should not get a flu shot, he said.
To avoid getting the flu, people should avoid other people’s sneezing, wash their hands frequently and not go to work or places where they will spread the illness, the doctor said.
Dr. Mario Gutierrez of Weslaco said strains of influenza can mutate, and changes in weather can affect the spread of the flu.
“I think we are seeing more serious cases of flu this year,” he said.
Holder said that people with weakened immune systems, especially diabetics and people with COPD, are much more likely to be hospitalized or even die if they do not get prompt treatment for flu and stay in bed after getting proper treatment.
People with normal health might be sick for five to seven days, but those with diabetes, heart conditions, COPD or other chronic illnesses could suffer up to twice as long with the flu, Holder said.