Dr. Frank Welch, the medical director for the state’s immunization program, can sum up this year’s flu season in two words:
Louisiana’s flu season started early, is dominated by a virus strain not completely covered by the flu shot and continues to send people to the doctor in large numbers. Although the rest of the country has caught up to the level of severity Louisiana has seen this season, the cases in Louisiana are still relatively high.
“There’s just a whole lot of flu going on, and it’s continuing,” Welch said.
By the end of this week, it’s estimated that more than 400,000 people in Louisiana will have come down with the flu and more than 4,000 will have been hospitalized because of it, Welch said.
Each flu season is different as strains of the flu become dominant in various years, so it’s hard to compare one year to the other, Welch said. This year, the virus in charge is a type A flu, which generally creates more serious illnesses.
Welch said that given the early start of the season, the number of people getting sick and the serious type of virus strain circulating, Louisiana is about a month ahead of where it typically is during the flu season.
“It’s been a little worse than it was last year,” said Dr. Michael Bolton, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.
Bolton works with children who get seriously ill with the flu or with a secondary infection after getting the flu. This year, he’s seen several cases show up earlier than normal.
Usually the peak of the flu season is in February, but there were already cases of ill children in the hospital by November or December, he said. No children have died because of a flu-related illness this flu season, and it won’t be until later in the year that estimates for any adult deaths will be made.
In addition, although the flu vaccines developed for use contained protection for this H3N2 flu virus, a segment broke away and became a different strain after the vaccines were developed.
It’s this different strain of the H3N2 virus that most people in Louisiana are getting right now.
“There’s a vaccine mismatch,” Welch said.
That’s doesn’t mean getting the flu shot was a wasted effort, and if you haven’t gotten one, go do it, he said.
“You still will get protection from the vaccine,” Welch said. “It’s going to protect you, just not as much as if it was a perfect match.”
A person with the protection might not get as sick and might avoid going to the doctor or hospital, even if the virus type causing the majority of the flu is slightly different from what was in the vaccine.
“Get the flu shot. Even though it’s not as effective, it still helps,” Bolton said.
Some good news from the most recent information on incidence of flu in the state is that there wasn’t an increase in cases in last week’s reporting.
Does that mean the peak of flu season could be over? Not necessarily.
“The only thing that’s predictable about the flu is that’s it’s unpredictable,” Welch said. “You just never can tell what’s going to happen next.”
Only time will reveal if the elevated number of flu sufferers in the state will continue.
In the meantime, Welch said, people should get the flu vaccine, stay away from people with the flu and wash their hands on a regular basis. If someone does get the flu, call a doctor to see if antiviral medicines are appropriate, get rest, drink fluids and stay home to avoid spreading the flu, he said.
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