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Influenza becomes epidemic

A virulent strain of influenza virus is causing what is being described as a flu epidemic nationally, statewide and locally, according to most reports.

Nationally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicated the influenza virus has exceeded baseline levels in 43 states and 21 children have died from the infection.

The Wisconsin Department of Health confirmed on Friday, Jan. 2 in a weekly release to local health departments and healthcare providers that the state has also reached influenza epidemic.

This year’s virus, known as H2N3, is presenting some tougher than usual challenges. First, it’s a Type A virus, which means it produces more severe symptoms. Secondly, the strain represents a mutation or “drift” from the strains this year’s flu vaccine was formulated to combat.

The CDC initially reported last fall that the vaccine would be a match for more than 60 percent of the influenza strains this year. However, more recently that estimate was revised to under 40 percent.

Nevertheless, the CDC and local health officials continue to urge the public to get flu shots if they have not already had one. The health officials say that the vaccine can protect against some strains of influenza and lessen the severity of symptoms and the duration of the disease in cases of strains where it is not directly matched.

Another recommendation, from the CDC and local health officials is to use Tamiflu at the first sign of symptoms. This can also lessen severity of symptoms and the duration of the infection.

What’s happening locally?

“We are seeing at Vernon Memorial Healthcare and clinics several admissions and clinic visits for seasonal influenza in December 2014,” reported Romelle Heisel, the RN Infection Prevention Coordinator for VMH. “This compares (similarly) to the state weekly reports.”

Crawford County Public Health Nurse Gloria Wall also confirmed there was a high incidence of influenza cases locally, but indicated she thought it was not quite as high as cases being reported in other parts of the state at this point.

Both local health officials were reporting an upswing in positive tests for influenza infection at local hospitals and clinics. Both reported the number of admissions for treatment remained relatively low.

“Admissions to the hospital continue to vary,” VMH’s Heisel said. “Usually, most admissions only stay for a short period of time, 24 hours or a few days.”

Wall said hospital admissions of Crawford County residents were relatively low (under 10 at this point). Most involve elderly people who are having trouble breathing.

“Most people are sent home with Tamiflu or self-care instructions,” Wall said of those presenting themselves at hospitals and clinics for treatment. However, she noted those in compromised health conditions are sometimes admitted for rehydration and/or oxygen.

Heisel pointed out that even those admitted to the hospital for treatment of severe seasonal influenza symptoms are usually released in 24 hours or a couple of days.

Tamiflu supplies seem adequate at area pharmacies currently. Two years ago, supplies ran short during and intense seasonal influenza epidemic, but so far that does not seem to be the case this year.

“Knock on wood, the supply is okay right now,” said Heather Schaefer, the pharmacist at the Solar Town Pharmacy in Soldiers Grove. Schaefer said the pharmacy had no trouble getting Tamiflu supplies at Christmas.

Has the seasonal influenza season peaked?

“I suspect it has not peaked yet,” Wall said of the current flu epidemic. “Every Friday, the state releases a graph and it’s always up from the week before. It has not yet dipped down.”

The Crawford County Public Health Nurse said she felt it would be “shortsighted” to say the influenza season has peaked.

Both Wall and Heisel pointed out that seasonal influenza was a highly unpredictable infection.

“The seasonal influenza season is continuing in our communities,” Heisel said. “It is not possible to predict what this flu season will be like. Flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways. While flu spreads every year, the timing, severity and length of the season usually varies from one season to the next.”

Local health officials, as well as the CDC, continue to encourage preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of infection.

“Prevention is the key—staying away from sick people and washing your hands to reduce the spread of germs,” Heisel said. “If you are sick with the flu stay home from work or school to prevent spreading it to others. Frequent cleaning of touch surfaces (door knobs, light switches, etc.) will help reduce the spread of the germ. If you have not received your seasonal influenza vaccine yet and have contraindications, obtaining your seasonal influenza vaccine is still recommended.”