Fighting the flu: Cases of virus on the rise

ESCANABA – Flu season is in full swing across Michigan and the rest of the United States, and the U.P. is no exception. With an increase in the number of local cases being reported, many may wonder what the risks are and how they can stay healthy this winter.

Symptoms of influenza include a cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, body aches, chills, fatigue, and a fever over 100 degrees or the feeling of being feverish without a fever. Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are also possible with the flu, but are most common in children.

According to MI Flu Focus, the Michigan Department of Health’s weekly flu report, as of Dec. 28, there have been 121 hospitalizations due to the flu in the state since the season began on Oct. 1. Of those cases, 26 were children and 95 were adults.

“It does seem fairly typical to see flu-like illness rates begin to rise in December when the holidays bring people in closer proximity,” said Jennie Miller, immunization/communicable disease coordinator for Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties.

In Michigan’s northern region, which encompasses the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula, seven cases of the flu led to hospitalizations the week of Christmas. Eleven hospitalizations have occurred in the northern region during the 2013-14 season. However, none of these cases involved patients under 18 years of age.

Locally, flu rates can be difficult to measure. Area schools provide Public Health with a weekly count of students who are said to be sick with an ‘influenza-like illness,’ however these cases are unconfirmed. Infection Control at OSF St. Francis Hospital also reports to Public Health when there is an increase in flu-like illnesses and associated increases in positive influenza test results.

“This flu season, OSF reported their first positive rapid test in mid-November. However, in both the schools and hospital, influenza activity increased in mid-December. Of course, many people get sick and never seek medical care, so we would have no way of counting how many are ill,” said Miller.

While many people may view the flu as merely an inconvenience, being infected with the virus can cause serious complications and even death. So far this flu season, four pediatric deaths related to the flu have been reported in the U.S. – one of which was in Michigan.

“It is important to remember that serious complications from flu occur each year in individuals who were previously healthy and had no identified risk factors,” said Miller.

Despite all people being at risk for serious complications, some are more susceptible than others. Those at significantly heightened risk of complications include: Children between 6 months and 4 years of age, adults older than 50, those who are immunosuppressed by medications or HIV, pregnant women, children between the ages of 6 and 18 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy, nursing home residents, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and those who are morbidly obese (with body mass indexes of 40 or greater).

Healthcare workers; caregivers; and those with chronic lung, cardiovascular, kidney, liver, neurologic, blood, or metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, are also at an increased risk.

“The single best way to prevent influenza is to get vaccinated every year,” said Miller.

Vaccinations have been available since late August at area physician’s offices, retail pharmacies, and Public Health. While it is recommended that the vaccine be administered early in the season – ideally by October – the vaccine remains effective as long as the flu viruses are still circulating.

“Since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body…, it is best that people get vaccinated in time to be protected before flu viruses begin spreading in their community,” said Miller, adding that although immunity obtained from flu vaccination can vary by person, previously published studies suggest that immunity lasts through a full flu season for most people.

Other ways to reduce the spread of the virus include avoiding close contact with people who are sick; covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing; frequently washing hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand cleaners; avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, which can transmit germs carried on the hands; and practicing health habits like exercising and eating well.

“It is important to remember that even if you don’t get seriously ill with influenza each year, you could be passing the virus on to others who are in poor health,” said Miller. “The more individuals are vaccinated in a community, the more we see a decrease in the amount of illness that circulates.”