January 14, 2018
The flu is hitting Lake County, and the rest of the U.S., hard this season.
While individual cases of flu are not reported in Illinois, 37 people had been sent to intensive care units for flu-related illness in Lake County this flu season, as of late last week, as compared to 48 ICU hospitalizations for the entire 2016-2017 flu season, which begins in late August. One pediatric death has been reported.
No deaths were reported for the previous four years, said Victor Plotkin, epidemiologist and coordinator of infectious disease programs at the Lake County Department of Public Health.
In suburban Cook county, 87 people have been hospitalized since September. No pediatric deaths have been reported.
Plotkin said the uptick does not necessarily mean the entire season will be more intense. He and his team of epidemiologists track communicable diseases in Lake County.
“Medical experts say this year’s strain may just be peaking early this season,” he wrote in an email. “(The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s) flu forecasters say there’s a 30-percent chance the season [peaked] around the end of December, and a 60-percent chance that the greatest incidence will be by late January.”
Matt Plofsky, a physician at Highland Park Hospital, said he has definitely seen an increase in the number of people presenting flu-like symptoms and probable influenza.
“Generally, we probably see an uptick in mid-January or February, but this year we started seeing it in mid-December,” he said.
Plofsky said about 6 percent of patients at the hospital are presenting these symptoms, where normally 2 percent are this time of year.
Officials advise residents to get vaccinated and follow the “three C’s”: Clean hands with soap and warm water, or an alcohol based hand rub; cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or shoulder and contain illness by staying home when you are ill.
A person who presents flu symptoms — dry cough, sore throat, body aches and fever — should get appropriate rest to prevent the spread of the disease, officials say.
Infected people are contagious for five to seven days and should only return to work or school when their fever has been gone for 24 hours, officials say.
High flu activity will likely continue for several weeks, wrote a CDC spokesperson in an email. Each year, 36,000 people die from flu-related illness.
During more intense years, that number can double, Plofsky said.
Among the most vulnerable are children, the elderly, people with metabolic disorders like diabetes, neurological conditions, cardiovascular conditions, excluding hypertension and chronic pulmonary conditions like asthma.
Health professionals speculate that this year’s spike could be explained by the predominant strain circulating in the population, A(H2N3). A strains of influenza are more genetically diverse and mutate two to three times faster than influenza B.
Because B strains of influenza are less genetically diverse than A strains, immunity is often acquired at an early age, officials said.
Flu vaccines are, in a sense, predictive and designed to protect against the three or four strains of the virus research indicates are most likely to spread during the upcoming flu season, Plotkin said.
Plotkin said studies show vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by about 40 to 60 percent among the overall population during seasons where circulating flu viruses are like the vaccine viruses.
“In the United States last season, overall vaccine effectiveness against all circulating flu viruses was 39 percent, and VE was only a bit lower, 32 percent, against H3N2 viruses,” he wrote.
Rachel Rubin, senior medical officer at the Cook County Department of Public Health, said the vaccine isn’t a perfect fit this year, which may contribute to the intensity of the season. However, imperfect vaccines generally protect people against the virus and make sickness more mild if contracted, she said.
A vaccinated population also protects those who cannot get the vaccine for medical reasons, she said.
“Just vaccinate, vaccinate!” she said.
Matt McCall is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.