The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

January 12, 2014

Flu bug bites hard: Virus takes toll on region, vaccinations urged

Randy Griffith

JOHNSTOWN — Flu season has hit the region with a vengeance, keeping doctors busy and spiking absenteeism in schools and workplaces.

Cambria County has 110 confirmed influenza patients, and Somerset has 55, the state Health Department’s weekly report says.

Blair County’s 260 cases is only surpassed by Allegheny County with 280. Six flu-related deaths have been confirmed statewide.

The actual number of people with the flu is much higher, Dr. Matthew P. Bouchard, chairman of emergency medicine, said from UPMC Altoona.

“There are a limited number of tests available,” Bouchard explained. “In most patients we tend to base the diagnosis on clinical symptoms.”

For most patients, treatment involves bed rest at home with medicine to reduce symptoms. Tests to confirm the flu virus may be limited to those with severe symptoms, or underlying medical conditions who are admitted to the hospital, he said.

“If they test positive, they have to be isolated,” he said.

Hospitals across the region report a significant number of severe flu cases requiring hospitalization.

“We have seen an increase in the emergency room over the last several weeks,” spokesman Greg Chiappelli said from Somerset Hospital.

Local reports verify the Health Department’s data showing a familiar strain of influenza is the primary culprit. The H1N1 Type A flu accounts for more than 90 percent of tested cases, Health Department spokeswoman Holli Senior said.

Formerly misidentified as the swine flu, the H1N1 strain is different from most flu viruses because it brings its worst to a younger population, Senior said.

“With H1N1, the most severe illnesses are found in young and middle-aged adults, which is the same thing we saw in 2009 in the original pandemic,” she said, adding that children are also at higher risk for complications with the H1N1 strain.

In 2009, more than 1,200 people died from the H1N1 flu in the United States, and more than 14,000 died worldwide.

Following its unusual late-spring appearance and early autumn peak in 2009, the H1N1 strain became part of the seasonal flu mix every year, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Michael Jhung said.

“This is the first year since 2009 that it has been the predominate strain,” Jhung said. “That’s a little different.”

The good news is that those developing this year’s flu shots anticipated that H1N1 would still be around, Senior said.

“This year’s flu vaccine is well matched with what we are seeing circulate,” she said, urging those who have not gotten vaccinated to get their shot.

“There is still a lot of flu season ahead of us,” she said, noting the reports continue to increase each week.

“What goes up, must also come down, so it’s not too late to get vaccinated.”

Most of those treated for flu in Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center in Johnstown were those who did not have flu shots, said Dr. Daniel R. Wehner, emergency medicine director.

“Although we have seen a significant number who had had the vaccine,” Wehner said.

Altoona’s flu patients were also primarily those who did not get flu shots, Bouchard said, noting that his estimate is “purely anecdotal.”

Flu shots remain the best prevention against the virus and having the vaccine generally reduces the severity in those who get the flu anyway. But it’s still important to be vigilant in hygiene and prevention strategies, Wehner said.

Frequent hand-washing, avoiding contact with people who appear sick, using tissues and staying home and away from other people if you are sick are among the suggestions.

Those with diabetes, heart disease, respiratory conditions or other risk factors should be especially on guard because the flu can lead to serious complications and death, Dr. James Stewart said from Windber Medical Center emergency department.

“Most people, when they have the severe symptoms, if they don’t have any underlying illness, they can weather it pretty well,” Stewart said.

Those with underlying conditions should contact their doctor as soon as possible if flu symptoms develop. Physicians can prescribe an antiviral medicine that reduces the flu’s severity and duration.

Children and those who have trouble swallowing pills may run into issues because Tamiflu’s liquid form will be in short supply for the next couple of weeks because of increased demand, the Food and Drug Administration reports. There is plenty of capsule form, however, and the FDA website includes advice to create a liquid substitute using the capsules with chocolate syrup or similar product.

Influenza is a respiratory viral infection, Stewart said. Typical symptoms include cough, runny nose, congestion, sore throat, fever and general aches.

“It is spread respiratory-wise, too,” Stewart said, noting that tiny water droplets from coughs and sneezes spread the virus through the air. Hand contact with eyes, nose and mouth provides another avenue.

This year’s flu count statewide is well behind last year’s, Senior said. But the numbers are still rising sharply, and last year’s flu season was peaking about this time, she said, noting it is impossible to predict the flu season.

Randy Griffith covers health care for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at