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Flu on the rise in Denton County

Denton resident Ken Walker wants you to stay home if you’re getting the flu.

He’s trying very hard to avoid exposure to the potentially deadly virus as he shops for groceries and runs errands.

Influenza is widespread in Denton County and Texas. He knows if he brings the bug home, he could make it tough on his wife, who has a chronic lung disease.

“She’s been hospitalized every winter with pneumonia,” Walker said. “The doctors told her the next time, she won’t come out.”

Hani Khair, medical director of epidemiology and chief epidemiologist at Medical City Denton, echoed Walker’s advice for people who are sick and may be coming down with the flu.

“You need hydration and rest,” Khair said. “Try not to infect others.”

Since early December, the number of new flu cases has spiked in Denton County, increasing from about 30 to hundreds of new cases each week. According to the latest report from the Denton County Health Department, 38 Denton County residents went to the hospital the week before Christmas with complications from the flu. Another 358 people tested positive for flu that week. 

Between Oct. 1 and Dec. 23, 698 Denton County residents have tested positive for the flu.

The rise in cases has leveled a little bit since school dismissed for the holidays, according to Dana Long, spokeswoman for Medical City Denton. However, hospital officials are keeping an eye on the calendar because infections could tick upward again when schools and colleges reopen in a few weeks, she said.

This year’s vaccine is a mix of four strains of flu antibodies, two of Type A and two of Type B. Most people are testing positive for a Type A flu strain that doesn’t have a good match in the vaccine, Khair said.

<p>Hani Khair,&nbsp;<span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">medical director of epidemiology and chief epidemiologist at Medical City Denton.</span></p>DRC

Hani Khair, medical director of epidemiology and chief epidemiologist at Medical City Denton.

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But that doesn’t mean the vaccine won’t help, he added.

First, the vaccine may yet prove a good match for the Type B flu that tends to come later in the flu season, Khair said.

Although the antibodies aren’t the right kind to protect against the Type A virus going around now, “they have blunted the disease,” Khair said.

That can mean the difference between life and death for people with chronic medical conditions, as well as the very young and the very old who also have a hard time fighting off the flu.

Each year, complications from the flu kill 70 to 90 Denton County residents, said Matt Richardson, the county’s public health director. 

No flu-related deaths have been reported in Denton County this year, according to the latest county health report.

Public health officials have a hard time communicating how important flu shots are, particularly overcoming the ways some people talk about vaccines and share information on social media, he said.

Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson at a recent public meeting on health trends in the county.&nbsp;DRC
Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson at a recent public meeting on health trends in the county. 
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“There are competing stories, and some have varying degrees of accuracy,” Richardson said.

Some people perceive a greater threat from exotic diseases for which there is no vaccine, yet they don’t get a shot to prevent something that kills 30,000 to 40,000 people each year, he said.

The other well-known prevention tip is good hygiene, including coughing into your arms (not your hands) and keeping your hands clean. 

"It's the least sexy, but it's so elementary," Richardson said. "Wash your hands." 

Public health officials urge doctors and patients that if they suspect the flu, to treat it as such, even if a quick-test isn't conclusive, Khair said. Once a person comes down with the flu, the only way to take the edge off is with Tamiflu, a prescription medicine.

The medicine isn’t for everyone but can help people with chronic medical conditions, Khair said.

If an affected person becomes dizzy and disoriented, has chest pains and trouble breathing, or vomits too much, it's time to visit the hospital. Also, if the person appears to be getting better and suddenly relapses with a fever or other symptoms, they should come to the hospital because complications may have developed, Khair said. 

"Sometimes, some people get bad pneumonia, and those people can be deadly sick," Khair said. 

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. 

FEATURED PHOTO: Amanda Henderson, a pharmacy worker at Medical City Denton, handles a box of Tamiflu on Tuesday. Tamiflu is a prescription medication that helps treat symptoms of the flu.