Influenza hitting early and often

Illinois is in the midst of one of its worst influenza seasons in recent memory.

It’s one of 41 states with widespread influenza – part of higher-than-normal flu activity nationwide for four consecutive weeks, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Illinois hasn’t seen such widespread influenza since the 2003 flu season, with the exception of the H1N1 virus – commonly known as swine flu – in 2009.

From Dec. 16 to Dec. 22, Illinois recorded 31 influenza-related admissions to hospital intensive care units, three of which resulted in deaths.

“We’ve had a dramatic increase [of flu cases] in the last few weeks,” said Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the cause of the uptick in flu cases, she said.

“The flu is very unpredictable. It could be due to holiday gatherings and people getting together, but there’s no way of knowing,” Arnold said.

Brenda Brak, a family practitioner in Barrington, said she also has seen a rise in influenza cases and believes the increase is partly because of a lack of vaccinations.

Fewer people have been vaccinated this year, said Brak, who is affiliated with Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington. “Some people who have never gotten a flu shot feel like they are not at risk,” she said.

Other people resist getting the vaccine because they believe the shot will result in the flu, which is not true, Brak said.

“Folks who have gotten one flu shot and had a bad reaction … they aren’t eager to get another one. You might feel achy [after a flu shot],” she said, but it won’t give you the flu.

Nationally, the percentage of people visiting their health care provider with influenzalike illness is higher than normal, climbing to 5.6 percent in the past four weeks from 2.8 percent, according to the CDC.

Illinois is one of 29 states experiencing high levels of influenza-like illness, based on outpatient visits.

Arnold said the typical peak for flu cases is in late January and early February, and the spike in December cases is unusual. If the trend continues and flu activity continues to increase throughout winter, Illinois could be in for one of its worst flu seasons ever.

“It’s not too late to get an influenza vaccine,” Arnold said.

Tracking influenza cases is done by measuring ICU patients who demonstrate flu symptoms. Doctors’ offices and health clinics also report patients who appear to be suffering from the flu, Arnold said.

“The only thing predictable about the flu is its unpredictability,” said Tom Schlueter, Kane County Health Department public information officer. “We’ve had really low activity during the first six to seven weeks of the season. It’s gone up really high in the last few.”

One group of people possibly bucking the trend is schoolchildren. Students who have been out of school for winter break are interacting less with other kids and therefore have been at a lower risk of contracting the flu, Crystal Lake School District 155 spokesman Jeff Puma said.

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