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GOT FLU? / December 13, 2012
Early to rise, early to crawl back into bed.

The annual flu season is running ahead of schedule this winter, and local health officials are keeping a watchful eye to see if an uptick in cases since the end of November becomes a torrent at the start of the new year, normally a peak time for influenza.

“It seems to be starting early this year,” said Millie Lavaway, manager of infection control and employee health at Halifax Regional Hospital. “We don’t usually get our big jump until January or February. But this year it’s really gotten on a roll.”

Lavaway said the hospital microbiology department tested 41 positive cases of flu over a period from Dec. 7-10, with about two-thirds of persons affected children under the age of 9. Prior to that point, she said, the incidence of flu reports had been light.

“That’s a big jump over a weekend,” she said.

The Southside Health District is tracking the flu, too, finding as well that the annual season is off to a fast start. Rhonda Pruitt, the health district epidemiologist, said reports of flu started to come in around the last week of November and the number has been building since then.

“We are seeing a definite increase in flu activity,” she said.

The strain that has cropped up thus far is ordinary, run-of-the-mill flu — Type A, which the flu vaccine effectively counters — and an early start to the season doesn’t mean a full-scale outbreak is destined to follow. “Just because we’re seeing earlier activity, that does not correlate necessarily to the severity of the season,” said Pruitt.

What is does suggest is that it’s a good idea to be prepared. And for health officials, the first step is communicating steps that the public can take to minimize the risk of infection, and lessen the effects should the disease strike.

The most important thing to do? Go get a flu shot, health officials agree.

“That’s the biggest means of protection we have,” said Pruitt.

The flu vaccine is reformulated each year to protect against strains that researchers deem most likely to surface during flu season, and so far there have been no big surprises. Lavaway said the hospital has seen a high number of cases for this time of year, but nothing exotic: “This is not an unusual strain. It’s just the flu.”

Flu shots are available at pharmacies, doctors offices and clinics, and members of the public can make an appointment at the health department to receive a shot. It generally takes two weeks for immunity to take full effect, but Lavaway said the shots can ameliorate the symptoms of flu even if people get sick soon after receiving the shot. “It’s never too late … the immunization can make it less severe.”

Another key step is limiting one’s exposure to the virus. Important steps include frequent hand-washing, “respiratory etiquette” — a gentle way of describing the act of covering one’s mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing — and keeping a safe distance from anyone who might have cold or flu symptoms. Towards that end, and in light of the surge of flu cases this weekend, Halifax Regional is discouraging the public from bringing children along for patient visits.

“We’re trying to influence people not to take their children, especially if they’re sick,” said Lavaway, who noted that youngsters are more likely to carry the flu virus even if the illness hasn’t manifested itself yet.

School officials earlier this week noted high absenteeism at several elementary schools, with one having nearly a third of one of its classes out for a day or so.

The Southside Health District is working with the school division to draft a letter to send home with students warning of an early start to the flu season. Pruitt said the schools are seeing increased absences due to the flu, and parents and caregivers should watchful of flu activity.

Despite the precautions, Pruitt notes there’s nothing yet to indicate a full-scale outbreak is inevitable this winter. She said flu cases are being reported at an “above sporadic, increased level” but the state health department has not declared an outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control also is reaching out to the public, hoping more people will get the flu vaccine before the winter season intensifies.

“This is the earliest regular flu season we’ve had in nearly a decade, since the 2003-2004 flu season,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said at a press conference last week. “That was an early and severe flu year. While flu is always unpredictable, the early nature of the cases plus the strain we are seeing suggests it could be a bad flu year.”

(Editor's note: This article is clarified from the print version to note that Halifax Regional Hospital tested for 41 positive cases of flu from Dec. 7-10, as opposed to admitting 41 patients during the period.)

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