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Daniel Burgess

County sees uptick in flu cases

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By Daniel Burgess

A spike in the number of reported influenza cases in Denton County indicates the 2016-17 flu season has begun in earnest, and health officials expect that number to increase.

Denton County Public Health reported “high influenza activity” for the fifth week of 2017, which ended Feb. 4.

“The last four weeks, it’s been increasing sharply,” said Juan Rodriguez, chief epidemiologist at Denton County Public Health. “The numbers have definitely gone up a lot in the last few weeks.

“Every season is difficult to predict. We’re still in the middle of it, and we don’t know how high it will increase.”

A select number of health care providers report the results of flu tests to provide the county health department with a sample that reflects flu activity throughout the county. These providers reported 168 positive tests in the fifth week of 2017 compared with 57 in the first week.

The University of North Texas Student Health and Wellness Center has seen more cases in the first week of February (24) than it saw all month in February 2016 (20), said Kerry Stanhope, assistant director of the center’s Department of Outreach.

Denton ISD spokesman Mario Zavala said the district’s Health Services Department had not seen an influx of flu cases this season, adding that attendance levels had remained relatively stable.

According to district attendance totals, only 20 more students were absent Wednesday than on Feb. 1.

The district cannot attribute an absence to any reason until it receives notification from a parent, said Zavala, adding he couldn’t say definitely whether the additional absences were related to illness.

Flu season occurs every year from October and May. This year’s flu spike has occurred later in the season than in recent years, but Rodriguez said a February spike is not unprecedented.

“For many years, it was actually normal to see peak influenza activity in February, which is kind of what we’re seeing right now,” Rodriguez said.

The county health department still is offering vaccines for free to people who are uninsured or underinsured. Those with private insurance can get vaccinated for $20.

“Influenza activity is still increasing. With that it means we haven’t peaked yet,” Rodriguez said. “Getting the vaccine now could still protect you for half the season or more.”

A different flu vaccine is developed each year based on predictions of which strains would be most active. If the predictions are wrong, the vaccine won’t work.

This year’s flu vaccine is targeted at four strains of the virus. Rodriguez said that while a vaccine’s effectiveness can’t be measured until after the flu season ends, the strains that were targeted are the same strains currently making people sick.

“It’s a guess early in the spring to put out a vaccine in the fall to hopefully match what’s circulating. So far it’s a good match,” Rodriguez said. “When those two match well, it usually means it’s effective.”

The Student Health and Wellness Center is out of vaccines but is handing out free bottles of hand sanitizers. Stanhope said students with the flu should not attend class until they’ve been without fever for at least 24 hours to prevent spreading the illness.

For those who contract the virus, Rodriguez said staying home from work and keeping kids out of school is most important for protecting others.

Anti-viral drugs, such as Tamiflu, help shorten the length and severity of the illness but only if taken soon after symptoms begin.

“Anti-virals can be given in the first few days of the illness and it can have a good effect, but if you wait too long, it may not be helpful at all,” Rodriguez said. “So if you feel like you have the flu, you should see your doctor.”

Local pharmacies reported having plenty of Tamiflu in stock. Pharmacist Cindy Bourgeois, who works at Drug Emporium in Denton, said her pharmacy was low on children’s liquid Tamiflu last week but now has a full supply.

Only pediatric, flu-related deaths are reported to the county health department, and none have been reported this year. Adult deaths from the flu are not reported in Denton County, but the virus kills thousands of people nationally every year.

“We can generalize that about 30,000 to 40,000 people [nationwide] may die of the flu this year, so if you generalize that number to us, maybe 50, 60, 70 people die from the flu this year,” Rodriguez said.

DANIEL BURGESS can be reached at 940-566-6875 or via Twitter at @DanielKBurgess.