The influenza virus that’s sickened millions of Americans is already the most widespread outbreak since public health authorities began keeping track more than a dozen years ago. Now, with the threat of more strains emerging, it might get even worse.
“Flu is everywhere in the U.S. right now,” said Dan Jernigan, director of the influenza division at the national Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
All 48 contiguous states and Alaska are experiencing widespread influenza outbreaks, with regional flu activity in Hawaii, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
In Kansas, influenza has killed 18 people so far this flu season, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment reports. Another 126 have died from pneumonia, with pneumonia and influenza linked as a contributing factor in another 464 deaths.
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The flu has been reported in most areas of Kansas, said Jerry Kratochvil, a spokesman with the state health department, and hospitals are seeing an increase in flu cases.
“This is a severe year,” said Maggie Hagan, Wichita Via Christi medical director for infection prevention and an infectious disease specialist.
Hagan said she hopes flu season has hit its peak, but it is too early to tell.
Flu-like illnesses in Kansas spiked in late December and early January. Nearly 8 percent of all visits to health care facilities were for flu-like illness in early January, up from about 1 percent in October.
That’s earlier than last year when flu peaked in the middle of February when 10 percent of visits to health care facilities were related to the flu. The year before, flu-like illnesses peaked at around 3 percent of visits.
Hagan has some simple advice for avoiding the flu.
“The best way to avoid getting sick is to avoid sick people,” she said. “Influenza is something that you get from other sick people.”
She said people should always stay home from work or school when they have a respiratory illness.
“That’s what sick days are for,” she said. “That helps us prevent spreading this.”
Wichita public schools state online that students with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or greater will be sent home and cannot ride the bus.
Hagan also suggested following “respiratory etiquette” of sneezing or coughing into a sleeve instead of your hands or on another person, as well as good hand-washing. Hagan also said some churches are promoting hand waves instead of handshakes.
Whether you should visit a primary care doctor, clinic or emergency room depends on the severity of symptoms, she said. High fever, coughing, headaches and body aches are symptoms of the flu.
Treatment is designed to shorten the course of symptoms so you feel sick for fewer days, Hagan said.
While doctors can treat influenza, there are limitations on what can be done for rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, and other respiratory viruses. The flu can also develop into pneumonia, which requires treatment.
People should start with their primary care doctor and save the emergency room as a last resort, Hagan said.
Influenza A virus subtype H3N2, which is associated with a more severe influenza season, has been the predominant type both this flu season and last flu season, in Kansas and across the nation.
The most optimistic assumption among government experts is that the season peaked a few weeks ago. Even if the hopeful assessment by the CDC bears out, there will still be another 11 to 13 weeks of flu circulating nationwide.
“In general, we see things peaking right about now, but that means there is still a whole lot more flu to go,” said Jernigan of the national Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
“In addition, there are other strains of influenza still to show up that could be a major cause of disease.”
That may already be happening. The CDC is starting to see infections caused by the H1N1 strain of the virus in states grappling with high levels of the H3N2 strain, the predominant version this season. In addition, Jernigan said, yet another type of flu, caused by the influenza B viruses, is still expected to show up later in the season.
It’s not too late to get a flu shot
In Wichita, free flu shots are available at the Sedgwick County Health Department clinic, 2716 W. Central to uninsured adults and children and children on Medicaid and other state insurance. For others, flu shots are available on a sliding scale with the lowest fee being $2.