The sounds of the season are sprinkled with sniffles, snuffles and snorts. All that hacking this early, before the end of the year, portends a potentially ferocious flu season, physicians and public health officials said Monday.
“We started to see flu earlier this year going back to September,” said Dr. Brian C. Reed, the director for disease control and clinical prevention for Harris County Public Health. “The season typically runs from October to March,”
Influenza cases have been increasing in Texas and across the nation since November, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The uptick in illness has proven deadly. The state’s first pediatric flu death in November was counted among eight nationwide, the CDC reports.
This month, Texas hit another milestone. In the first full week of December, reporting health providers said 7 percent of suspected “influenza-like illness” cases tested positive for the virus, which exceeded this season’s baseline for high activity in Texas.
While the flu in the state has reached its maximum level of intensity, its misery remains regional in geographic spread. For now.
“We are seeing more respiratory illnesses in Texas. We are seeing more confirmed influenza in Texas and all of this seems to be on the rise,” said Dr. Jennifer Shuford, infectious disease medical officer with the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Our influenza-like illness and influenza activity both appear to be earlier this year than they have been the last two seasons.”
On Nov. 30, the Galveston County Health District reported 268 lab-confirmed flu cases since September. There were just 32 cases during the same period in 2016.
Houston Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villarreal said about 8 percent of recent ER visits in the Houston area have been prompted by influenza-like symptoms. The most-impacted population so far – 51 percent of urgent visits for flu symptoms – have been children four years old and younger. There’s also been more sickness on the east side of Harris County, Villarreal said.
Harris County Public Health clinics also have seen more patients with coughs, sore throats, runny noses and body aches, Reed said. In addition, the agency has received reports from several area elementary schools about high absenteeism from children and adults with flu symptoms.
If there’s any good news in all of this, it’s that the flu usually hits hardest in January and February – which means there’s time to get vaccinated.
“The No. 1 thing that people can do is get a flu vaccine. It usually takes about two weeks for people to experience immunity. It’s not too late because flu season runs through March,” Reed said.
Health authorities recommend vaccinations for people six months and older. Those at high risk of serious illness and death from the flu include people 65 and older, pregnant women, young children and those with chronic health conditions.
Allison Winnike, a public health attorney who is the new president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, said she’s worried that people will forget about vaccinations amid the recovery from Harvey and that skipping the shots will result in fewer people with protection in the Gulf Coast region this season.
“The basics of life – getting a roof over your head, clothes on your kids, figuring out where to get a hot meal – those come first, and sometimes we put our own health care needs second,” she said. “People who normally would be getting their flu shot in September or October, well, sometimes that gets put on the back burner.”
Flu shots are plentiful in Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health locations as well as area drugstore and grocery store clinics. Physician officers also have vaccines.
“It’s not too late to get the flu shot,” Shuford noted. “We have not hit our peak activity yet, so there’s still time to get the flu shot and for it to be beneficial.”
The youngster who died from the flu last month lived in the greater San Antonio area, she said. The child “had an H3N2 influenza virus and they had not been vaccinated.”
Reed, a family physician, said a few ounces of prevention can be found through basic hygiene and common courtesy for those who want to try to dodge illness.
“Lots of washing of the hands and cover your mouth when you sneeze,” he said. “Wipe down common areas like the kitchen or your desk. Stay at home when you’re sick. Don’t go to work or school and make others sick.”
And if you’re prescribed antiviral treatment, he said, be sure to take the medication. Patients can often shorten the course of illness by at least one day.