After an extremely mild flu season last year, confirmed cases of influenza infection are climbing rapidly nationwide and expected to reach the epidemic level well in advance of the peak of flu season that typically occurs in January or February.
In North Carolina, 77 confirmed cases of flu and two flu-related deaths since October have public health officials in that state expressing concern as to whether the early and rapid climb of influenza infection is an indication of a particularly harsh flu season to come or merely an early peak.
In Tennessee, where flu data is not collected comprehensively but at “sentinel” health care offices dispersed across the state, the flu has been confirmed in more than 2 percent of patients tested in West Tennessee and in the Knoxville area, although “not a lot” in Northeast Tennessee, said Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the Northeast Regional Health Office in Johnson City.
“Basically, in the United States we’re just starting to see flu really pick up. In Tennessee it’s the same, with some local spread,” Kirschke said.
“It’s definitely starting early but it’s kind of patchy. In some regions of East Tennessee (Knoxville) and in West Tennessee, it’s above the threshold — the (2 to 2.5 percent) number above which the viral epidemic has started.
“From the data that’s come in from other areas of the state and other areas of the country, we expect to see some (flu) here soon. Or it could already be here and we just don’t have the data yet.”
In either case, Kirschke said, the importance of receiving a flu vaccination and exercising precautions to guard against the spread of the flu has increased. “This is even more reason to get your shot and take precautions,” he said.
While the flu vaccine is recommended for everyone age 6 months and older, the vaccine is particularly important for people in high risk groups, including adults over age 65, women who are pregnant, anyone with lung disease, diabetes or other chronic illnesses, and anyone who is living with someone in a high-risk group.
Simple but effective precautions to guard against the spread of flu include frequent hand washing, covering coughs and staying home when sick.
The flu vaccine is available at county health departments across the region where anyone can call for an appointment. The cost is $25.