Now that the flu season has officially begun -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said so Monday -- Allegheny County Health Department Interim Director Ronald E. Voorhees has a message for those still unprotected:
"Get vaccinated. It's here, and the clock is ticking."
According to the CDC's weekly surveillance report published Friday, 48 states and Puerto Rico have reported cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza and, nationally, the percentage of specimens testing positive for influenza is rising fast. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas all are reporting above-normal cases of flu. Such an uptick usually doesn't happen until after Christmas.
Dr. Voorhees said that as of Tuesday, the county had more than 30 confirmed cases "and I'm sure there's three or four times that many people at least in the county with influenza."
Those being seen in emergency rooms with influenzalike symptoms, considered a reliable gauge of a flu outbreak, is already higher nationally than for all of last season. Locally, Dr. Voorhees said, influenzalike illnesses have risen for days and now account for more than 3 percent of all emergency room visits although there have been no known admissions for the flu.
With the exception of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, this year is the earliest the nation has reached a CDC influenza benchmark since the flu season of 2003-04.
"One of the messages I'm trying to put out is that it's a little early this year but it is here," Dr. Voorhees said. "If you were putting off getting a vaccination, this would be a really good time to get it."
Most of the viruses characterized so far this season have been H3N2 viruses, which are typically associated with more severe seasons. The good news, however, is that most of the characterized viruses are well-matched to the vaccine viruses.
"We're always hopeful to do a good job of predicting the strains that should be included in the vaccine, but until it comes you don't know if it's a match," Dr. Voorhees said. "It looks like we have a good matching vaccine that will be very protective. Obviously, we'll stay in touch with the CDC, but right now it looks good."
National flu vaccination coverage estimates were similar to those from the same time during the last flu season, the CDC said. More than 60 percent of Americans have not been vaccinated. Statistics are not available for local vaccinations, but Dr. Voorhees said there's no reason to believe rates here would be significantly different than those nationally.
Though each flu season varies, influenza can be severe, hospitalizing up to 200,000 people and killing between 3,000 and 49,000 during a season, according to the CDC. Everyone aged 6 months and older should get a flu vaccination each year to protect themselves and others against the flu, the CDC said.
Vaccination is especially important for people who are at high risk of serious flu-related complications -- young children, people 65 and older, pregnant women, and those with certain chronic medical conditions, like heart disease, diabetes and asthma, the CDC said. In past flu seasons, the CDC reported, as many as 80 percent of adults and 50 percent of children hospitalized from flu complications had a long-term health condition.
Common symptoms of flu are fever, cough, sore throat, body/muscle aches, headache, fatigue, and runny or stuffy nose. While flu symptoms can be similar to those associated with a cold, the fatigue, cough, fever, and head and body aches can be more extreme in flu, according to the CDC. People with colds are more likely to have a runny or stuffy nose.
Michael A. Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1968.