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Flu epidemic not over, doctors urge vaccine

Hospitals seeing many with flu symptoms

The flu season can go until April or May, so doctors suggest getting the flu vaccine. File photo

January 17, 2013 | 09:34 AM
As hospitals around Long Island are seeing a dramatic increase in patients with the flu or flu-like symptoms, doctors are urging people to get flu shots. The dominant strain of the influenza virus this year has painful symptoms, including high fever, chills, sore throat and headaches that can last as long as seven days.

Through the first 11 days of January, Stony Brook University Hospital saw 271 patients with flu-like symptoms. That is triple the number of patients hospitalized in the same period last year, a spokesman said. John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, meanwhile, has had quadruple the number of flu cases from last year, according to a spokesman.

Huntington Hospital has seen a 40 percent increase in emergency room visits this year, according to Dr. Michael Grosso, senior vice president of medical affairs. The hospital doesn't say how many of those are flu visits, but those are contributing to the climb.

"This is the most since the swine flu," also called H1N1, said Catherine Shannon, the director of infection prevention and control at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown.

Long Island is part of a nationwide surge in flu-related illnesses, as this year's strain, H3N2, has been spreading. The Centers for Disease Control indicated that 47 states reported widespread geographic influenza activity for the week ending Jan. 5.

Medical professionals on Long Island and in Washington urge people who haven't received a flu vaccine to get one. The vaccine contains an inactive form of H3N2, the most prevalent form of the flu on Long Island, and can either prevent the flu or reduce the severity of symptoms, doctors said.

Even with so-called B strains of the flu, the vaccination works two-thirds of the time, doctors explained.

It takes about two weeks after a vaccination for the body to produce enough antibodies to fight off an infection. Still, with a flu season that typically lasts until April or even May and with a virus that's increasing hospitalizations and sick days at work, doctors recommend getting vaccinated, even now.

The most vulnerable groups include the young, those over the age of 64 and people with weakened immune systems. The virus spreads through direct contact with someone who is sick who sneezes or coughs nearby, by drinking from the same cup and by touching a surface that might have germs and then making contact with your nose or mouth.

Soap kills the virus, so the CDC recommends regular hand washing.

While there is no cure for the flu, doctors often prescribe Tamiflu, which, if taken within the first 48 hours of infection, can reduce the symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.

Tamiflu, however, has been in high demand on Long Island and elsewhere, leading to some shortages.

"There's been a tremendous amount of flu this year," said pharmacist Stuart Scheinson, who works at Centereach Pharmacy & Surgical. As of last week, the pharmacy was out of Tamiflu for children, although the store still had the medicine for adults.

Symptoms of H3N2 generally show up all at once.

"You could go to work feeling fine," said Dr. Susan Donelan, the medical director of the Healthcare Epidemiology Department at Stony Brook and an infectious disease physician. A patient might have feverishness, chills, body aches and maybe shortness of breath. "It tends to hit relatively abruptly, like someone hit you with a truck and you didn't see it coming."

Shannon of St. Catherine's acknowledges, "not every vaccine is 100 percent effective." She herself got the flu despite the shot.

Still, she believes "I had a milder case with the vaccine." Additionally, the vaccine can help prevent secondary infections, like pneumonia and bronchitis, which can arise after the flu.

Stony Brook's Donelan cautioned that an infection in the weeks after flu symptoms dissipate could become a serious health threat.

"If someone has an influenza or influenza-like illness, recovers and then, subsequent to that, develops a fever, they must get seen," she urged. "That could indicate a life-threatening super infection."

Some pharmacies on Long Island are running low on the vaccine.

"Select locations may currently be experiencing shortages in supply of flu vaccine," Rite Aid spokesman Eric Harkreader said in a statement. "When possible, we're moving our supply around to meet the demand." The company advised calling the local store to check on availability.

Village Chemists in Setauket used to offer flu shots, but there wasn't enough interest to keep providing them. Owner Michele De Angelis said the company received 10 calls for the flu shot and may offer them again in the fall, before the next flu season.

On the positive side, several schools in the Three Village area have seen a relatively low rate of confirmed cases of the flu, according to Nancy Weiner, a nurse at Minnesauke Elementary School. As of earlier this week, there were only a handful of confirmed flu reports combined at P.J. Gelinas Junior High School, Ward Melville High School and Minnesauke.

Medical professionals outside those schools cautioned, however, that the virus is hitting hard in and around the area.

Even in and around the hospitals, "I see our employees sick," Shannon said.

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