It's not too late to get a flu shot to protect yourself from the flu, as the virus continues to expand its deadly reach.

The U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared deaths reported through the 122 Cities Mortality Reporting System due to pneumonia and influenza to be at the epidemic threshold of 6.8 percent for week ending Dec. 20.  

Pneumonia and influenza mortality

Deaths related to pneumonia and influenza are at the epidemic threshold for the week ending Dec. 20.

Influenza, according to the CDC, is widespread, with the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) reporting 973 influenza-associated hospitalizations during the week of Dec. 21 - 27, as well as two deaths, both teens, bringing the nationwide pediatric mortality total to 15. While influenza-associated pediatric deaths must be reported to ODH, adult deaths are not reportable, so total influenza-associated death statistics are not available.

Influenza-associated hospitalizations have increased steadily since the beginning of December, with 254 the week ending Dec. 6, 529 the week ending Dec. 13, and 935 the week ending Dec. 20.

Ohio hospitalizations

The Ohio Department of Health shows influenza-associated hospitalizations for the current year are well above the four-year average. 

“Influenza vaccination is the safest and most effective way to prevent the flu, except for infants younger than 6 months old who aren’t eligible to receive it,” said Dr. Mary DiOrio, medical director of the ODH in a Dec. 19 press release.

The 2014-2015 flu season, which likely will continue into next spring, may be severe according to the CDC. Influenza A (H3N2) is the predominant virus strain this year, and hospitalizations and deaths are higher when it is dominant.

“Many people have probably heard about this year’s flu vaccine not being as effective because of mutations in some influenza viruses,” said DiOrio. “I cannot emphasize strongly enough that it’s still very important to get vaccinated. The vaccine provides some protection against mutated viruses and maximum protection against other circulating influenza strains for which the vaccine remains well matched.”

Symptoms of the flu can include body aches, headache, sneezing, cough, fatigue, stuffy or runny nose, nausea, diarrhea, and fever or feeling feverish, as not everyone with flu will develop fever.

In addition to vaccination, flu.gov suggests several steps to prevent the spread of the influenza virus.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.

• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs spread this way.

• Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

• Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat healthy food.

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

• If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.

The CDC warns that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze or talk,  and can infect people up to six feet away. Additionally, studies have shown that human influenza viruses generally can survive on surfaces between two and eight hours.

Influenza viruses can be destroyed by heat (167-212°F). In addition, several chemical germicides, including chlorine, hydrogen peroxide, detergents (soap), iodophors (iodine-based antiseptics) and alcohols are effective against influenza viruses if used in proper concentrations for a sufficient length of time. For example, alcohol-based hand rubs can be used in the absence of soap and water for hand washing.

According to flu.gov, children are more likely to get the flu or have flu-related complications as their immune systems are still developing. Each year in the U.S. an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 are hospitalized for flu-related complications. Severe flu-related complications are most common in children younger than 2. Young children, 6 months to 5 years, are at risk of febrile seizures. Children with chronic health conditions such as asthma and diabetes have an extremely high risk of developing serious flu-related complications.

Children and teens suffering from flu-like symptoms should not be given aspirin, warns flu.gov, as it may result in Reye’s Syndrome, a rare but serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain.

In a Dec. 6 press release, the CDC recommended that clinicians administer one of two prescription antiviral drugs as a second line of defense as soon as possible to patients with confirmed or suspected influenza who are hospitalized, have severe illness, or may be at higher risk for flu complications.

These antiviral drugs are oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (Relenza®). Patients who could benefit from them include children younger than 2 years old; adults 65 and older; people with chronic medical conditions including asthma, heart disease, or weakened immune systems; pregnant women; American Indians/Alaska Natives; and people who are morbidly obese.

“These antiviral medications can reduce the severity of the flu and prevent serious flu complications,” said Dr. DiOrio. “They work best when started within two days of getting sick.”

Weekly flu activity reports may be found at the ODH website.

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