It’s official: Valley flu season opens
It may be early, but signs of flu season are already evident in the area.
St. Luke’s University Health Network has had two confirmed cases of influenza, while the Lehigh Valley Health Network reported three to date.
Medical professionals, however, aren’t alarmed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially designates flu season as running from October through May.
“What we’re seeing right now are scattered cases and not an epidemic,” said Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, St. Luke’s section chief of infectious diseases.
“This is not an unusual scenario for this time of year. Our two cases were separated by a few weeks. If we had a whole bunch of cases together, that would be more concerning.”
Unlike St. Luke’s, the Blue Mountain Health System has tested several patients with flulike symptoms, but nobody has tested positive for the virus.
“Historically, we have seen confirmed cases this early, but the peak is generally in December or January,” said Kathy Matika, Blue Mountain’s director of infection control. “Last year, we saw a lot of cases as late as May. It was a late season.”
There is no way to pinpoint, however, when the flu will strike from one year to the next.
“It’s a season of its own,” Matika said. “And there is really no factor, like age, that makes someone more susceptible than the next.”
“The only thing predictable about flu season is that it’s unpredictable,” Jahre added.
Winter months, specifically in the northeast, drive people indoors.
With more people in tighter quarters, Jahre said, influenza can spread more rapidly.
Two years ago, an influenza strain that had a devastating effect on young people left many of them on ventilators and getting extra oxygen.
Just like the length and exact peak of a flu season is hard to predict, the severity of the disease is also hard to pinpoint from year to year.
It is estimated that 5 to 20 percent, or 600,000 to 2.4 million, of Pennsylvanians get the flu each year, and 120 to 2,000 die from complications of influenza.
More likely, however, is that someone who contracts influenza will have a fever and feel weak for some time.
“That is the best case,” Jahre said. “In a worse case, someone could have difficulty breathing and get a secondary bacterial infection. There is a potential for death.”
Like many diseases, those with weakened or undeveloped immune systems, such as the extremely elderly or young, are at a high risk of more severe symptoms.
Doctors are adamant that doesn’t mean people in the prime of their life should not get vaccinated.
“Generally you see people who are young, maybe in their 30s or 40s who have never gotten the flu, say they don’t need the vaccine,” Jahre. “Everyone is susceptible though and often times we need to think about other people we come in contact with. Would we want them to become infected from us because we weren’t vaccinated?”
While the CDC recommends getting a flu shot as soon as its available in an area, Matika said October is an optimal time to get it.
“There is the potential for the vaccine to wane over time, that is why we have to get an annual shot,” she said. “It takes two weeks for the protection to kick in.”
Pharmacies usually make bulk orders and get their vaccine as soon as early August, when they begin advertising heavily.
According to Jahre, evidence shows that even getting a shot that early would carry someone through the season.
“There is one study that showed older people may have a waning immunity toward the end of the season,” he said. “It’s very controversial though and I wouldn’t be too concerned about the immunity lasting through the season. Also the good news is that the vaccine seems to be a good match for the strains we have seen in our early cases this year.”
New this year is that a nasal vaccine, found ineffective for the last two years, will no longer be distributed.
While most vaccines have a 60 to 70 percent effectiveness rate, the nasal vaccine was only at three percent.
Flu vaccine is produced by private manufacturers, so supply depends on manufacturers. For the 2016-17 season, manufacturers projected they would provide between 157 million and 168 million doses of injectable vaccine for the U.S. market.
As of late September, more than 90 million doses of 2016-2017 flu vaccine had already been distributed in the United States.
“At this point there are no availability issues,” Jahre said.