By GRACE GADDY
Flu, flu, go away, come again another — no, wait a second — don't come again, any day.
This may be what residents crossed their fingers for over the holidays, but seasonal influenza (flu) — a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses — has indeed come again, as it tends to come hand-in-hand with the colder weather.
The illness has generated special attention recently after a strain of the virus H1N1, also known as swine flu, claimed the lives of at least five people in Texas.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported “widespread” flu activity in Texas this season, along with southern states Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. A “widespread” alert means that more than half of a state's geographical counties have reported flu activity.
But this is normal, according to Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“Right now, the level of flu-like illness is classified as high in Texas, and doctors are seeing an increase in flu in multiple parts of the state,” Williams said. “This is not unusual. This is what we expect this time of year.”
To meet that expectation, local health officials recommend that residents get vaccinated.
“It's the best defense we have,” Williams said, noting that the flu vaccine does cover the H1N1 virus — the same strain that caused a scare in 2009 after spreading widely and claiming 12,000 lives across the United States.
But health officials say that this particular strain of the virus is not as alarming as some make it out to be. In fact, seasonal flu viruses account for double that number, visiting approximately 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population and accounting for an average of 23,600 deaths annually.
The traditional “trivalent” flu vaccine protects against the influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common: the H1N1 virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus and an influenza B virus. In addition, there are also “quadrivalent” vaccines available, which are made to protect against four flu viruses.
Palestine Regional Medical Center’s Infection Prevention and Employee Health nurse Toby Johnson said he has seen a spike in local flu cases and encourages local residents to get vaccinated.
“I have been off, but we did have a little bit of an increase (over the holiday),” he said.
Johnson said that residents should take preventative measures to avoid contracting the flu, such as washing hands, keeping a clean house and avoiding people who are sick.
“If you think you have the flu, go see your primary physician as soon as possible, just to make sure, because there are a lot of allergies going around too,” Johnson said.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, body aches, chills, runny nose, congestion, coughing, scratchy throat, headache, fatigue and in some cases, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
Johnson said that once someone has contracted the flu, the virus generally has to run its course.
This can take anywhere from four to five days, though complete recovery can take up to 10 days or longer. Severity of the symptoms and length of the infection depends on the individual.
Dean French, M.D., with East Texas Family Medicine in Palestine, told the Herald-Press during last year's flu season that most adults can infect each other a day before even showing symptoms, and up to a week after becoming sick.
“That’s why it’s so contagious,” French said.
Johnson said it generally takes two weeks for antibodies to develop and for the vaccine to actually start working. So if a person has the vaccine and then contracts the flu, it is probably because the virus was already present in the person's body prior to their receiving the vaccine.
“The actual flu injection is not a live virus,” Johnson said. “Unless you have the flu when you get it it, it does not cause the flu. And the vaccine is not a guarantee that you won't get the flu, but it will help to make it a lighter case.”
Johnson said that people need to know that the flu is a virus.
“Antibiotics do not help,” he said, though “they do have medicines that help with the symptoms, like Tamiflu®.”
Williams said the state Department of Health recommends that persons ages six months and older get vaccinated.
“People over 65, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions are most at risk for flu complications, so it's especially important for them to get vaccinated,” she said.
As far as vaccination risks are concerned, Johnson said that people who are allergic to eggs or Thimerosal, a mercury-containing organic compound found in the vaccine, may not want to get vaccinated, or if “you've had a history of the Guillain-Barre syndrome.”
“Those are really the only contra-indications,” he said, “if you have severe allergies to any of those.”
Tammie Little, immunization manager for the Texas Department of State Health Services Region 4/5N, said the vaccine is usually available through primary care physicians, most pharmacies and Walmart.
“Adults who are uninsured would be eligible for the flu vaccine at the State Health Department,” Little said. “Any child who is uninsured, has insurance that does not cover immunizations, or has Medicaid insurance is also eligible at the State Health Department, located at 330 E. Spring Street in Palestine.”
For more information about the flu and prevention, visit the CDC at www.cdc.gov.