Widespread illness forced the cancellation of classes for two days at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College campuses across the region this week.
According to medical personnel, cases of the flu are increasing in this area and across the nation. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says flu is widespread in 41 states and Puerto Rico, and regional in the other nine states.
Kentucky is among those where the illness is reported as widespread. In addition, a virus that includes vomiting and diarrhea as symptoms is also affecting people in this area.
Whitesburg Appalachian Regional Hospital reported 35 cases of flu already this month, mostly influenza Type A. While 35 may not seem like a large number, infection control director Kim Cornett said it’s an increase over January. The flu season normally runs from October through March, with most cases reported in January, February and March. The numbers from the hospital are only those people treated in that facility.
At Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation’s Whitesburg Clinic, infectious disease specialist Dr. Fares Khater said doctors are seeing five to ten patients a day with the flu, mostly H1N1 Type A, but also H3N2 Type A and some Type B flu. Type A can be contracted by birds and some mammals in addition to humans.
“Every year, influenza peaks sometime in the year. Sometimes it’s in December, sometimes in January, sometimes in March,” Khater said. “This year it’s in February.”
Khater said MCHC is using a trivalent vaccine, which prevents three strains of flu, and the hospital is using a quadravalent vaccine that prevent four strains. The people MCHC physicians are seeing are mostly people who haven’t taken the vaccine at all.
Both Khater and Cornett said the most effective thing people can do to prevent the spread of the flu is to take the flu vaccine.
“The vaccine is recommended for everyone six months and older,” Cornett said.
And even though flu is already spreading, Khater said it’s never too late to take the vaccine. While it takes two weeks for the vaccine to take effect, he said it might still prevent a person from becoming ill.
The CDC is recommending only the flu shot this year, not the nasal mist. The shot contains the deactivated flu virus, but the mist contains the live, but weakened virus.
“Studies have shown this year that the inactivated vaccine, which is the shot, is more effective,” Khater said.
The flu shot cannot cause someone to get the flu, however there are usually several strains of the flu each year, and the shot only protects against those strains the CDC believes will be most prevalent during a given flu season. The nasal mist can give the flu to pregnant women or people with weakened immune systems, such as people with AIDS, people who have had bone marrow transplants, or people who are taking chemotherapy.
Cornett and Khater also urged people to practice good handwashing. Hands should be washed with warm, soapy water, being sure to wash the wrists, backs of hands, between the fingers and the nails; point the fingers down so water runs off the ends of your hands, and dry with a disposable towel. Hands should be washed for at least three minutes.
A common instruction is to wash for at least as long as it takes to sing the song “Happy Birthday” twice.
Khater said for families that have one child with the flu, that child should stay in a different part of the house from the other children. He also warned that the very young and the elderly are more susceptible to complications, but anyone who has had the flu is subject to complications such as staph pneumonia. If a person has the flu, seems to recover, but then begins coughing or experiencing pain when he or she takes a deep breath, that person should be see a doctor immediately.