Chattanooga region sees spike in reported influenza cases

A Walgreens pharmacy manager injects a costumer with the seasonal flu vaccine. Experts advise getting a flu shot in October before flu season actively begins.

Flu season kicked off early as activity increased significantly across the nation and the Chattanooga area in recent weeks.

Health care providers reported 295 cases of influenza-like illnesses to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department through Dec. 23. That is more than seven times higher than the 41 cases reported at this time last year, according to health department data.

In the last three months, Erlanger Health System treated 177 patients suspected of flu, compared to 55 cases during the same period in 2016 and 50 cases in 2015, officials said on Tuesday.

Dr. Shavonda Thomas, internal medicine physician with Erlanger's Community Health Centers, said in a news release that flu season usually peaks in January or February and encouraged people to take precaution.

"It is not too late to get the flu vaccine if you haven't already received one this season," Thomas said. "Additionally, getting the vaccine is helpful, because it may reduce the severity or duration of flu symptoms."

Many factors could be fueling the surge, but one possibility is that the predominant strain of the virus thus far, influenza A (H3N2), is thought to be less controlled by vaccination and has been associated with more hospitalizations and deaths in older adults and young children, who are at higher risk of developing complications from flu.

Typically, flu shots are between 40 and 60 percent effective, but effectiveness against the H3N2 virus is about 32 percent, according to reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC responded to the increased activity of H3N2 in an official health advisory on Dec. 27 that called for heightened awareness and use of antiviral medication when flu is suspected.

"Clinical benefit is greatest when antiviral treatment is administered as early as possible after illness onset," the advisory said. "Therefore, antiviral treatment should be started as soon as possible after illness onset and should not be delayed even for a few hours to wait for the results of testing."

In addition to a flu shot, people can ward off the illness through diligent hand washing and avoiding infectious people, Thomas said.

"Most individuals are strong enough to fight off the illness with supportive care, such as adequate rest, fluids and acetaminophen/ibuprofen" she said. "If you feel ill, you should also avoid contact with others in order to decrease spread of the virus."

Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673.