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Influenza season has struck early this year in pockets of Kentucky, leading state health officials to upgrade the threat level from “sporadic” to “regional” because of the number of cases reported.
Hardin County has been identified as an outbreak area with numerous cases reported and tested at the state level.
Linda Sims, director of the Lincoln Trail District Health Department, said physicians in Hardin County have reported more visits from patients with flu or flu-like symptoms, spurring a stronger focus on vaccinations as Christmas approaches.
About 18 specimens from district cases tested positive for influenza strains by early December and have been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further analysis, said Karen Card, regional epidemiologist for the Lincoln Trail District Health Department. She said sending samples to the CDC is a typical procedure during flu outbreaks. Of those positive samples, she said, most contained H1N1 — a Type A influenza strain that attracted national media attention last year because of its widespread behavior.
Card said the H1N1 strain does not appear to pose the threat it did last year, surfacing as one of several strains of influenza — typical of most flu seasons. Card also said the strains identified in the specimens are all targeted by this year’s flu vaccine, which is distributed in a vaccination and nasal spray form.
While Card said she could not provide a specific number of influenza cases reported in Hardin County this season, reports and studies conducted at local and state levels indicate increased levels at an earlier period than usual. Card said flu season typically peaks around February and flu cases can be seen into May.
As for why the flu struck earlier this year, Card said she is unsure, but it may be the lingering effects of the H1N1 pandemic last season or a heightened alert level on the part of health officials triggered by the focus on H1N1, also known as swine flu.
“These, unfortunately, are just speculations on my part,” she said.
Sims said the health department has started to see some flu cases in adults, but most have been seen in children. In response, Lincoln Trail District Health Department partnered with local public school systems and larger private schools to vaccinate children during several days in December. Parents must sign a release form allowing the health department to administer the vaccine.
The response on behalf of schools to curb the outbreak has been very positive, Sims said, and she hopes that dismissing classes for Christmas break will reduce the number of cases. Sims said the sudden snap of cold weather has forced children to stay indoors in a compressed air setting, which can help the influenza virus to spread.
Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, director of the Division of Epidemiology and Health Planning, said the state is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated this flu season.
Vulnerable residents — including those with chronic illnesses, caregivers for small children and health care workers particularly — should receive the vaccine, Humbaugh said.
Once vaccinated, it takes 10 to 14 days for influenza-fighting antibodies to build up, Humbaugh said.
The state received its first influenza case in October and recorded lower levels of flu activity until recent weeks when the number of flu cases spiked in certain sections of the state, Humbaugh added. Along with Hardin County, Humbaugh identified the Lexington area as another pocket of increased activity.
Card said residents should not be naïve in dismissing the flu as a harsh form of the common cold because it can lead to serious conditions such as pneumonia. The flu alone, she said, can prove debilitating and sometimes turns fatal if left unchecked.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the nation contracts the seasonal flu annually and it kills more than 23,000 on average each year.
Except for receiving the vaccination, the best method to combat the flu is with “frequent and competent” hand washing, Card added.
“Influenza is distinct from a cold,” she said. “It can really knock you flat and rack up medical bills at a time when nobody wants that.”
TIPS TO FIGHT THE FLU
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (www.flu.gov).
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762