Area health officials warn of severe flu outbreak
Pitkin County health officials are warning of a recent and rapid outbreak of an influenza strain which is resistant to this year’s vaccine.
The flu is sending scores of people to hospital emergency rooms and medical clinics from Aspen to Glenwood Springs. No one from Pitkin County has been hospitalized yet, but the virus is on an “upward spike” that won’t peak until sometime in January, in terms of the numbers of people affected, according to Dr. Kimberly Levin, the county’s medical adviser.
“It’s widespread and it’s circulating at high levels,” Levin said Monday.
“Influenza has come to the valley,” said Liz Stark, Pitkin County public health director.
In Colorado, the flu has been categorized as “widespread” since the week ending Dec. 6, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That same classification also is being applied to 28 other states.
This time last year, the flu was officially considered “widespread” in only four states.
Flu season officially began Oct. 1. The dominant strain that has had health officials alarmed over the past few weeks is an influenza A virus known as H3N2. So far, all types of flu have resulted in hospitalizations of 510 people in 29 counties, Levin said.
The Denver Post reported on Thursday one pediatric death, an 18-month-old in Larimer County.
“(H3N2) can be fatal, particularly to children six months or younger or people 65 or older,” Levin said. “The symptoms are very severe and the illness is very contagious.”
Those symptoms include high fever, body aches and chills, and perhaps a cough and sore throat, Levin said. She advises anyone who displays the symptoms to see a physician, stay home from work or school, avoid groups of people, get plenty of rest and drink large amounts of water.
The illness will run its course in one to two weeks, she said.
“The number of cases has been on the rise in the last week or two,” Stark said. “It can be very serious.”
A new flu vaccine is developed annually in the United States based on expectations of the strains expected to be common later in the year. Development and production of the vaccine takes months, which is why it’s too late to develop one that will have an impact on the H3N2 strain, Stark said.
“Many people who may have gotten the flu this year may have gotten a flu shot, but it’s not protecting them from that particular strain,” she said. “It’s still recommended that you get a flu shot because throughout the season there will be other strains that circulate.”
Some anti-viral medications, such as Tamiflu, will help to lessen the symptoms and ease discomfort, Stark said. But there is no magic pill that will wipe it out quickly — the virus has to run its course.
Though the county has not yet reported a hospitalization related to the flu so far this season, area doctors are providing data to Stark’s office indicating “an increased number of people with influenza-like illness, which probably means that they have the flu,” she said.
Aspen School District students started their two-week Christmas break on Monday. Stark said 10 days ago her office provided an advisory to local schools and child-care providers about influenza and another illness that’s currently circulating, a gastrointestinal virus known as Norovirus.
“We sent an advisory on to the schools just to alert them to be on the lookout for these illnesses, but I did not have any reports from the school myself about an increased number of absences,” Stark said.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Norovirus infection can cause the sudden onset of nausea, severe vomiting and diarrhea. The virus is highly contagious and commonly spread through food or water that is contaminated by fecal matter during preparation. Someone also can be infected through close contact with an infected person.
Diarrhea, abdominal pain and vomiting typically begin 24 to 48 hours after exposure. Norovirus symptoms last one to three days, the Mayo Clinic said.
“People might think it’s food poisoning or they might call it the stomach flu, but it’s not really the flu, it’s a separate virus,” Stark said. “It’s extremely contagious and it’s definitely going around town. Actually, it’s widespread across the state.”
There is no treatment for Norovirus, she said. People usually recover in a few days without treatment, but should guard against extreme dehydration.
In the United States alone, an estimated 36,000 people die and more than 200,000 are hospitalized each year because of the flu, according to a Harvard University report.
“The flu is definitely hitting earlier and harder than it did last year, which was a mild-to-moderate season,” Stark said.
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