Flu surges back in Chattanooga

Flu surges back in Chattanooga

February 26th, 2011 by Emily Bregel in Healthlocal

After a brief reprieve over the snowy holidays, the flu season has picked up steam in Chattanooga.

"Sometimes flu hits in October and is gone by Christmas. Other times it's more like this year and it doesn't get started until late in the year," said Dr. Janara Huff, pediatric infectious disease specialist at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger.

T.C. Thompson has witnessed a surge in sick children in the past few weeks, Huff said.

"It seems like it's been worse for the past month than it was earlier in the year," she said. "It's just your typical fever, sore throat, coughs, body aches."

The flu sidelined four members of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga basketball team earlier this month, forcing the postponement of a game. All of them had received the flu vaccine.

Local health officials say that, overall, this year's flu vaccine contains three strains of flu that appear to be a good match for the strains now circulating.

But the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, said Sarah Sloan, epidemiologist with the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. Getting the vaccine mostly means that, even if you get the flu, you will recover faster and have less severe illness, she said.

"So far the vaccine is still a match. It's normal and expected to detect occasional breakthroughs," she said.

Across the country, flu is widespread in most states, but the total confirmed cases is down compared to last week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, 2,866 cases of flu were confirmed in the week that ended Feb. 19, bringing this year's flu season total to about 30,000 confirmed cases, based on surveillance programs, according to the CDC.

In Chattanooga, the health department has tracked a recent spike in flu activity after a decline in January. The number of weekly visits to local emergency rooms for influenzalike illness in the city reached a high of 159 cases in the last week of December, before dropping to 66 a few weeks later.

The numbers are climbing again, hitting 98 in the week that ended Feb. 12, according to the local health department.

Georgia was hit with an early surge of the flu and was one of the first states to have widespread flu activity.

"It's too soon to say for certain, but this year's flu season may have peaked in Georgia late last December," Logan Boss, spokesman for Northwest Georgia Public Health, said in an e-mail.

Flu should not be taken lightly, said Dr. Mark Anderson, Chattanooga infectious disease specialist.

Recently, a relatively young patient died after contracting the flu, then developing secondary pneumonia. He was 50 years old, Anderson said.

"I've seen some really severe cases," Anderson said. "Once the health department looks at the total number, I think it's going to show this has been a relatively severe flu year, and it's still going on."

Doctors are emphasizing the importance of washing hands after coughing and sneezing, as well as staying home from work or school when sick.

Flu is not the only illness circulating, making it even more critical that people stay home when sick and practice good hygiene, said Dr. Darwin Koller, pediatric emergency medicine specialist at T.C. Thompson.

"The flu is one of several viral illness that are just really surging right now at this time," he said. "Washing your hands and keeping your hands out of your mouth and your eyes. ... That's the No. 1 preventive measure that everyone can take."