Doctors urge flu shots as outbreak worsens

Dr. Michael McKenna
Published: .
Updated: .

The flu season has just started, but it's already claimed the lives of seven people in Indiana. Five were over the age of 65, and two were under 18 years old.

The flu outbreak is widespread in our state, and this year's outbreak is considered one of the earliest and worst in several years.

"This season has started much earlier this year. We are anticipating it will be a nasty, nasty flu season," said Dr. Theresa Rohr-Kirchgraber.

In emergency rooms and clinics, the number of people treated for the flu jumped nearly 40 percent in one week.

"The flu is like you are going to die," Rohr-Kirchgraber said.

Some victims already have. In addition to the seven deaths in Indiana, 18 adolescents nationwide have die of the flu, including high school senior Max Schwolert.

"It started out as the flu, then went to pneumonia and a staph infection on top of that, so those three things combined and just took over very quickly," said Schwolert's aunt, Michelle.

Indiana is already one of 29 red states the Centers for Disease Control says is experiencing high levels of influenza-like activity.

Health care experts say a flu vaccination, even this far into the flu season, is still the best protection from a debilitating and potentially life-threatening illness.

"You get up, you feel okay, then all of a sudden, you got fevers of 102, 103 degrees. Every muscle in your body hurts, it feels like you got hit by a truck," said Rohr-Kirchgraber.

Public health officials are closely monitoring the spread of influenza. Although it is too early to predict how long and how serious this flu season will be. That's not what parents want to hear, as winter breaks end and children of all ages head back to school.

"The flu has been very bad this year. We've actually seen it a little earlier and a little stronger than other states. It's good that parents are concerned about that, for both their children and for themselves. The biggest thing you can do is get a flu shot, for yourself, for your children, anybody that's over six months of age can get a flu shot. Even though it seems like it might be too late, it's not too late. We give out flu shots until we run out and that might be the springtime. So if you haven't gotten your flu shot, then go get your flu shot," said Dr. Michael McKenna.

All influenza associated deaths are to be reported to the health department within 72 hours of knowledge of death. The Indiana State Department of Health does not report the number of deaths in each county until five deaths have occurred in a specific county.

See Indiana's most recent flu report here.

The majority of flu-related illnesses being reported right now are the influenza A/H3 seasonal virus.

What is influenza (also called flu)?

The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and lungs. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year.

Signs and symptoms of flu

People who have the flu often feel some or all of these signs and symptoms:

•Fever* or feeling feverish/chills
•Sore throat
•Runny or stuffy nose
•Muscle or body aches
•Fatigue (very tired)
•Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.

*It's important to note that not everyone with flu will have a fever.

Preventing seasonal flu: Get vaccinated

The single best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu vaccine each season. There are two types of flu vaccines:

•"Flu shots" - inactivated vaccines (containing killed virus) that are given with a needle. There are three flu shots being produced for the United States market now. ◦The regular seasonal flu shot is "intramuscular" which means it is injected into muscle (usually in the upper arm). It has been used for decades and is approved for use in people 6 months of age and older, including healthy people, people with chronic medical conditions and pregnant women. Regular flu shots make up the bulk of the vaccine supply produced for the United States.

◦A hi-dose vaccine for people 65 and older which also is intramuscular. This vaccine was first made available during the 2010-2011 season.

◦An intradermal vaccine for people 18 to 64 years of age which is injected with a needle into the "dermis" or skin. This vaccine is being made available for the first time for the 2011-2012 season.

•The nasal-spray flu vaccine - a vaccine made with live, weakened flu viruses that is given as a nasal spray (sometimes called LAIV for "Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine"). The viruses in the nasal spray vaccine do not cause the flu. LAIV is approved for use in healthy* people 2 to 49 years of age who are not pregnant.

About two weeks after vaccination, antibodies develop that protect against influenza virus infection. Flu vaccines will not protect against flu-like illnesses caused by non-influenza viruses.

The seasonal flu vaccine protects against the three influenza viruses that research suggests will be most common.

How the flu spreads

Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Children may pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick. Some persons can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons may still spread the virus to others.

People with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away. Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Less often, a person might also get flu by touching a surface or object that has flu virus on it and then touching their own mouth or nose.

(To avoid this, people should wash their hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub. Linens, eating utensils, and dishes belonging to those who are sick should not be shared without washing thoroughly first. Eating utensils can be washed either in a dishwasher or by hand with water and soap and do not need to be cleaned separately.)

Info from CDC