Nationwide, the upper respiratory disease has been at epidemic levels since the season’s early November start and it continues to fell the young, the old and those inbetween at unusually high levels.
Physicians have been treating as many patients as they did during the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, according to scientists at the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hospitalizations and deaths, especially among children age 2 and younger, and people 65 and older, have continued to exceed norms since the season’s November start. The CDC says influenza-related hospitalizations are on pace to equal or exceed the 2014-2015 season when the agency estimates 34 million Americans came down with the flu, 710,000 were hospitalized and roughly 56,000 died.
Dr. Carlos Portu, of Marco Island, said there’s been quite an upswing in flu patients at his office and the trend isn’t slowing.
“Generally speaking, by this time of the year, normally we’re starting to see a drop off in the number of influenza cases, but I saw six on Tuesday of this week,” he said recently. “And that’s just one day. So we’re seeing a rather high rate of influenza cases late into the flu season this year. That corresponds with what we’re seeing nationally.”
Tragically, there have been 97 pediatric (birth to age 16) deaths, nationally, six of them in Florida, but none in Collier County, as of February 23.
As for the flu season’s peak, it varies. The CDC states that it can happen as early as mid-November and or as late as March, but in years, the season lasts into May.
Dr. Patricia Poling, of Millennium Physician
Group on Marco, said her office has received significantly more phone calls about the flu than in past years.
“We’re dealing with a lot of them over the phone just because we don’t want to expose other people,” she said. “So we’re walking them through the treatments, the therapies, what to do. Trying to treat them over the phone is something we don’t like to do, but we try not to expose other people coming into the office.”
Poling said she’s had a few patients who’ve been hospitalized, but that has primarily been for secondary infections or complications, such as an emphysema attack or pneumonia after having the flu.
“Our highest concerns are for people under 2 years of age and over 65 years of age, and anyone living with a medical condition that reduces their immune system or puts them at high risk for having a complication after having the flu,” said Poling.
She has been following CDC guidelines for treating patients and using the antiviral medication Tamiflu and found that they have responded well. Poling said Tamiflu can also be a preventative measure for “prophylactic cases,” such as people with a disease like leukemia or a compromised immune system living in a household where the flu is present.
Tamiflu is a standard treatment for high-risk patients, said Portu, and both he and Poling said the CDC stresses the importance of receiving medical treatment with 48 hours of the illness’ onset to minimize its severity.
They also stressed the importance of getting flu shots for adults and children, and preferably before the season begins in earnest.
“I don’t think enough people do,” said Poling, who also treats pediatric patients. “The flu shot reduces the death rate for children by 80 percent. I really do wish more people got flu shots. It protects the community. It protects the individual.”
She follows American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on vaccines.
“They’re highly supportive of 6-monthsand up for when we can give the flu shot,” Poling said.
“I’ve always highly encouraged vaccines,” Poling added. “I think vaccines are one of the best things the medical community has invented. Prevention, obviously, is the key. I feel that if this vaccine, this year, isn’t 100 percent effective, your body is still building its immunity up and then next year, you’re even better off if you get the next one.”
Portu said this season’s flu vaccine has been about 51 percent effective for children ages 6 months to 8 years old, while for the general population, the effectiveness rate stands at about 36 percent, as of February.
“The flu shot is helping one in three people avoid influenza and when the mortality rate is five percent for people over 65, that’s a lot of lives,” he added.
For more about the flu outbreak and getting vaccinated, visit floridahealth.gov/diseasesand conditions/influenza/, floridahealth.gov/ findaflushot, floridahealth.gov/floridaflu and cdc.gov/flu/weekly/summary.htm. For the Collier County Department of Health visit collier. floridahealth.gov/ or call 239-252-8200.