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2018 flu season assaults valley; it’s not over yet

Wash your hands!

By Mark Reaman

It comes on suddenly and stays a while. Your body aches. You get a headache. Your have no energy so you lie on the couch or in bed for hours during the day. You have the flu.

Hundreds of people in the county have experienced such symptoms and a few have even been hospitalized. Gunnison County is not immune to the flu. While the entire country is experiencing a relatively severe flu season, Gunnison County has also had several confirmed flu cases and they have come earlier than normal.

Jodie Leonard, Gunnison Valley Health infection preventionist and employee health nurse said, “Often, we see our surge of flu come in February-March. This season’s cases came earlier and seem to have been more severe, symptomatically. The majority of cases have been Influenza A, which is typically more severe. We may see a second wave of Influenza B as the season progresses.”

She said six people were admitted to the Gunnison Valley Hospital with the flu in December and January. Two of the six were older than 65. “Understand that we only track the admitted patients with confirmed flu,” she explained. “Flu patients diagnosed in the emergency department or in surrounding clinics are not part of this data. Those cases have been much higher in numbers, but are almost impossible for me to report on specifically.”

Nationally, Centers for Disease Control director Brenda Fitzgerald recently said this flu season has been dramatic. “We are currently in the midst of a very active flu season,” she said during a January 12 conference call with reporters. “With much of the country experiencing widespread and intense flu activity… While our surveillance systems show that nationally the flu season may be peaking now, we know from past experience that it will take many more weeks for flu activity to truly slow down.”

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment website, 2,055 people in the state have been hospitalized with the flu in Colorado since October.

Emily Mirza of the Gunnison County Department of Health and Human Services said this flu season in the county would be considered “severe, though it is not as severe as the 2014-15 season. Certain community members may be at a higher risk than others. These populations include older adults, young children, pregnant women, and people with chronic medical conditions.

“When people start showing any symptoms of flu onset, stay home and contact your primary care provider,” Mirza continued. “The flu is a respiratory illness and usually comes on suddenly. People can show some or all of the symptoms. The symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, feeling feverish/chills, muscle or body aches, headaches, or fatigue.”

Leonard said that ideally, the time for action to avoid the flu is in the fall with a flu shot. While you could still get the flu even after receiving the vaccine, it should be a milder case. “In October, the flu shots become available for the upcoming season,” she said. “But, it is not too late to get a flu shot. It takes about two weeks for the vaccination to be effective for your immune system. With the possibility of a second wave of flu cases and/or the later onset of Influenza B strains, even people who already had a case of flu should still get a flu shot if they haven’t already.”

Mirza agrees with that strategy. “If community members have not received the flu shot, we recommend getting one,” she said. “Additional basic preventive measures can help keep the community healthy. These include washing hands frequently, avoiding touching mouth, nose, and eyes, avoiding contact with sick people, and disinfecting surfaces regularly.”

One thing to keep in mind is that the flu is a virus and not caused by bacteria, so do not ask for antibiotics to treat flu symptoms. “Taking antibiotics for viruses leads to resistant bacteria,” Leonard said. “Tamiflu or other similar anti-viral medications can reduce the duration of illness and reduce the severity of symptoms. However, it needs to be started within 72 hours of onset of illness to be most effective.

“If you call your doctor and are going for an appointment, wear a mask to reduce transmission,” Leonard continued. “Influenza is mostly transmitted by droplets of nasal and oral secretions containing the virus. If you feel you can manage your symptoms at home, stay home. Alternating Tylenol and ibuprofen every three to four hours, keeping up with hydration and rest are the best steps for symptom relief.”

In the long-term, Leonard believes more can be done to battle the flu. “People get scared when they hear the word ‘epidemic.’ What lots of folks don’t realize is that we have an epidemic of flu every season,” she noted. “It comes down to how many people die and how much of our economy is affected. A longer-lasting flu vaccine is needed, but funding is not there for drug companies to do the research. We spend $1 billion worldwide on HIV vaccine research annually but only about $1.2 million worldwide on flu vaccine research. Many researchers believe there won’t be a shift in the funding until a major pandemic occurs.”

In the meantime, Leonard advises people “to wash their hands (especially after being in a public place), use the sani-wipes at the grocery stores, stay away from people who are sick and stay home if they become sick.”

Mirza said that Gunnison County Public Health still has the flu vaccine. Call 641-0209 if you would like to schedule an appointment.

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