Louisiana has seen a mercifully mild start to this flu season, but local doctors and national experts say that may be about to change.
Although the latest data available from the state Department of Health and Hospitals show a small number of cases, with only about 7 percent of all tests taken for influenza coming back positive for the week of Feb. 6, local doctors and more recent data from Columbia University in New York report a spike in flu-like cases that started in mid-February.
More than 1,000 “influenza-like” cases were reported in the state, according to the Columbia data, which are compiled from local estimates of influenza incidence at the state and municipal levels using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weekly regional reports, positive flu tests from collaborating laboratories and Google search activity.
The Columbia data found 1,059 potential flu cases the week of Feb. 14, more than double the total for the previous week, when 483 observed potential cases were reported.
Doctors in the New Orleans region have reported an increase in flu-like cases as well, with one local physician saying he had gotten as many as 20 calls a week for the last two weeks, versus the one or two calls a week he usually gets at this time of year.
“There’s absolutely been a spike,” said Dr. Brobson Lutz, an Uptown-based internal medicine doctor and the city’s former health director. “People are coming in with complaints about flu symptoms — fever, muscle aches, pains and problems with the respiratory system.”
Flu season usually starts in October and ends in May each year, but it can change depending on the virus.
In Louisiana, cases typically peak in late February or early March, according to DHH flu expert Dr. Frank Welch.
This year, Welch suspected the slow start to the flu season was due to relatively warm weather. When the weather is milder, people aren’t cooped up as much, and the flu doesn’t spread as quickly. He warned, however, that residents wouldn’t be out of the woods until early April.
For those who’ve seen a “sudden onset” of flu-like symptoms, Lutz recommended taking Tamiflu or another antiviral as quickly as possible. If taken within 48 hours of initial symptoms, it “really makes a difference,” he said.
“You can go from feeling terrible to feeling good in six to eight hours,” Lutz said.
Lutz also recommends residents get flu shots. Those who do get vaccinated but still get sick generally experience lesser symptoms, he said.
Although the CDC recommends that everyone who is at least 6 months old get the yearly vaccine, only about half of people do.
On average, the flu kills about 24,000 people a year in the United States.
It’s estimated that in recent years, between 80 and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 and older.
The flu becomes even more dangerous when mutations occur because it typically takes four months to create a new flu vaccine, according to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
In the 2014 season, the flu shot wasn’t as effective as officials had hoped because a mutated strain began spreading after the vaccine supply already was created and disseminated.
As a result, the 2014 vaccine was only 13 percent effective against the mutated virus. The typical flu vaccine is 50 to 60 percent effective, according to the CDC.
The CDC counted more flu-related hospitalizations of seniors that year than in any other decade on record. At least 146 children died — up 46 percent from the yearly average.
This year, the CDC recommends that children ages 2 to 8 use the nasal spray vaccine. Children younger than 8 who get the flu shot for the first time need to get two doses, officials say.
“It’s still not too late,” Lutz said.