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A sign lets customers know they can get a flu shot in a Walgreen store in Indianapolis. The flu vaccine may not be very effective this winter, according to U.S. health officials who worry this may lead to more serious illnesses and deaths.
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Dr. Adrien Strickland knows how important it is to get a yearly flu shot, which is why the internal medicine physician made sure her 7-year-old daughter got the vaccine this fall.

But this week, Strickland and her daughter were among about a dozen families spending an evening in the urgent care. All of the children in the waiting room, including her daughter, tested positive for influenza. And like her daughter, many had been vaccinated.

"From there it was a procession to Walgreens to get our Tamiflu," Strickland said.

The same scene is playing out among Strickland's patients and across the country as flu season kicks into high gear, aggravated by the fact that this year's vaccine has shown to be less effective for a strain of viruses called H3N2. And doctors say things likely will get worse. Erlanger Health System already has reported one flu fatality.

"We're seeing many kids and adults who were already vaccinated," Strickland said of the surge of patients at her internal medical practice, Laramore, Heinsohn, Donowitz and Strickland. "The strains in the vaccine do not match the strains that we're seeing."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned this month that the flu vaccine would have only about 50 percent effectiveness against one particular strain, H3N2, which mutated past what researchers and drugmakers planned for.

Now the Chattanooga region is starting to feel the effects. Over the past two weeks, flu absences due to the H3N2 strain have spiked in local schools, said Sheryl Rogers, coordinator of health services for Hamilton County Schools.

"The issue with the vaccine is definitely compounding the problem," said Rogers.

PROTECT YOURSELF & OTHERS

Wash your hands frequently and wipe down frequently used surfaces. The flu virus can live for eight hours on a dry surface. People are typically contagious before they come down with severe symptoms.

If you have fever and severe body aches, see a doctor as soon as possible. Drugs such as Tamiflu might help shorten the illness if administered within 48 hours.

If you are sick, stay away from work or school until you are fever-free for 24 hours without taking fever-reducing medication.

HOSPITAL FLU REPORTS

Erlanger Health System: Between Sept. 28 and Nov. 23, reported flu cases at Erlanger climbed from 3 to 65. More recent data was not available Thursday.

CHI Memorial Health Care System: 248 confirmed flu cases since Dec. 1.

Parkridge Health System: 174 positive flu diagnoses since Oct. 1 at Parkridge Medical Center, while Parkridge East has reported 285.

She cited one local elementary with 500 students that typically averages 15 absences a day. This week, absences climbed to 40, then 61.

"And the next day, they've got 101 absent, and the nurse sent 13 more home before 10 a.m," Rogers said.

The outbreaks have forced some schools, such as Athens City Schools in Athens, Tenn., to start Christmas break early.

"We have 180 kids out at the middle school. That's about a third of the school, which is why we decided we needed to go ahead and cancel on Friday," said Robert Greene, director of schools.

The CDC recently designated Georgia as one of 12 states showing "widespread" flu activity, while Tennessee and Alabama are showing "regional" flu activity. The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department cannot report the exact number of cases to date this year, but communicable disease program manager Connie Buecker said there has "definitely been an uptick" in recent days.

"I would not begin to say that this is the peak," Buecker said. "January is often a very tough month."

Dr. Brooke Johnson, emergency room physician at Parkridge Medical Center, said the flu cases she has seen this season are split "about 50/50" between those who have been vaccinated and those who haven't.

"I have to admit quite a few, because they have pneumonia and they are very miserable," she said.

The most common symptoms Johnson sees include fever, severe body aches, a hacking cough, and general lethargy. In some cases people have nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The symptoms typically last from five to seven days.

With the vaccine less effective, anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu and Relenza will be in even higher demand this year, physicians predict.

The drugs work best if they are taken within 48 hours of infection, so physicians recommended that those showing symptoms visit their doctors quickly. Doctors say they also see good results with preventive drugs that can stop flu from spreading to family members or lessen its impact on those who do catch it.

Dr. Betsy Close, family physician with UT Erlanger Primary Care, said virus spreads easily between family members.

"A lady came in yesterday who had five kids who were all home with fevers," Close said. "Her swab took 10 seconds to be positive it usually takes 10 minutes."

Once the worst is over, patients should stay home from work until they are fever-free for 24 hours. That's required school policy as well.

And health officials still stress vaccination. Even if it is less effective, it still offers some protection against H3N2 and the other strains included in this year's shots, and it may help the body develop antibodies to fight other strains.

"People really should be encouraged to do it, even though it may not hit the bullseye of the target," Buecker said.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison Belz at kbelz@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

This story was corrected to include the name of the correct strain. The original article listed it as H2N3, while it is H3N2.

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