EASTON — Winter ends next week, but flu season can linger into May, and medical experts say that it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
The flu has recently increased in Talbot County, and government agencies and pharmacists say that the season could last another six weeks or more.
Oct. 1 through April 30 is the standard time frame for influenza season.
“Flu activity, dominated by influenza A H3N2 viruses, has been elevated for eight weeks this season and continues to increase in some areas,” according to the CDC. “While the Northwest of the country experienced flu activity earlier and now seems to be on the downswing, the Midwest and eastern coast of the country continue to experience increases in activity.”
According to registered nurse Liz Whitby, the CDC’s Region 3, which includes Talbot County, has an elevated level of influenza cases. Whitby is the program supervisor for infectious diseases at the Talbot County Health Department.
“We’ve seen a lot of flu in school, reported by school nurses,” Whitby said.
Since the CDC didn’t recommend the flu mist for the 2016-2017 flu season, it hasn’t been available to children this year. But they could still get flu shots last fall at health department-sponsored after-school clinics. The flu mist did not require a parent or guardian’s presence, but the flu shot did.
As a result, “we had a lousy turnout,” Whitby said. Fewer immunizations set up the potential for more kids getting the flu.
“The most important things we’ve been doing (to prevent the spread of the virus) has been increasing cleaning of common surfaces and hand washing,” Whitby said.
Kasey Royer, a pharmacist with Hill’s Drug Store on Dover Street, has seen more flu cases during the past two weeks than she has all season, particularly among the pediatric population. She attributes the increase to the change in weather. “People have let their guard down,” she said. “They’re not bundling up” when the temperature has dropped.
Whitby’s advice is for people to get the vaccine, but if they do get sick, “stay home, see the doctor and start taking Tamiflu,” she said.
“In my personal and professional opinion, it’s still worth (getting a flu shot), even if you have to pay straight cash for it,” Walgreen’s pharmacist Long La said. He said that the current flu shot has a low risk of side effects, “and if you do get sick, you’re going to be spending $40 to $50 on medicine anyway.”
Tamiflu, or oseltamivir, is only effective if it’s taken within the first 48 hours of coming down with the flu, La said. It is available in liquid or capsule form, and La recommends going online to search for coupons to reduce the $100 pricetag. The flu shot, on the other hand, costs between $35 and $50 out of pocket.
The flu vaccine requires about two weeks to become effective, Whitby said. It is designed to protect against influenza strains A and B, and is effective about half the time.
“Treating high risk people or people who are very sick with flu with antiviral drugs is very important,” according to the CDC. “Studies show that prompt treatment, especially within two days of illness onset, with antiviral drugs can prevent serious flu complications. Prompt treatment can mean the difference between having a milder illness versus very serious illness that could result in a hospital stay.”
For those who suspect they may have the flu, Whitby said, “Don’t wait. Get to the doctor, especially if you have other, chronic conditions.”
According to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, “the flu is highly contagious and is spread person to person through the air by coughing or sneezing. It is also spread by direct contact with infected people. Flu symptoms usually begin one to four days after being infected with the flu virus. Symptoms include chills, fever, cough, headache, muscle aches, sore throat, runny nose, and fatigue. Influenza can be a serious illness that causes severe complications such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus infections. Thousands of deaths each year are caused by influenza.”
“Treatment with antivirals works best when begun within 48 hours of getting sick, but can still be beneficial when given later in the course of illness. Antiviral drugs are effective across all age and risk groups,” the CDC reported.
“Studies show that antiviral drugs are under-prescribed for people who are at high risk of complications who get flu. Three FDA-approved antiviral medications are recommended for use during the 2016-2017 flu season: oseltamivir (available as a generic version or under the trade name Tamiflu, zanamivir (trade name Relenza), and peramivir (trade name Rapivab),” according to the CDC.