Dangerous flu virus creeps into Valley

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WALLA WALLA — It’s here, make no mistake.

Especially the mistake of foregoing vaccination against influenza, health officials advise.

The flu arrived early this year and has sickened people across the Inland Northwest as the nasty strain spreads, according to news reports.

That includes Washington state’s first reported flu death, in the Tri-Cities, and two more elsewhere.

In Walla Walla, at least five people have been hospitalized with flu or flu-like symptoms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary data last week saying the prevalent strain of influenza circulating so far this year nationally is the H1N1 virus, which gained notoriety when it swept across the nation in summer and fall of 2009 and caused greater problems in pregnant women, children and young adults.

College students were bedridden for days, and hospitals filled with young people as health officials scrambled to confront one of the most serious flu outbreaks in decades.

Now it’s back, and will be more so when university students return from holiday break, predicted Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department.

“They’ll bring it with them,” he said.

National case reports from the CDC since November show significant sickness requiring hospitalization in recent weeks, as well as some deaths. Most vulnerable are children, young adults and people in later middle age who have not been vaccinated against the flu.

Seasonal influenza contributes to substantial illness and death each year in the United States, according to the CDC. In the 2012-13 influenza season, the agency estimates there were about 380,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations.

Typically the illness begins in the Southeast, heads up the East Coast then begins spreading west, Crowder said.

“Up until this week, the season has been in what we call ‘local’ status and then ‘regional,’ meaning there are cases in some communities and then in some regions,” noted Donn Moyer, spokesman for Washington state Department of Health. “Just this week, it increased to what we call ‘widespread,’ which means it’s many or most regions of the state.”

Influenza is not a reportable condition, since it is so common. However, health officials connect with clinics and health care professionals to get an idea of the pace of the flu activity during the course of each season, Moyer said.

At Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, people starting coming in for testing five weeks ago, said Kathleen Obenland, director of public affairs. So far this week alone, 29 people have come to the hospital with symptoms and seven tested positive for the flu.

The symptoms come on fast, various reports say. It begins with a sore throat and then a cough that progressively worsens. Fever follows, with headaches and body aches — often of the “hit by a truck” type. Many patients also have itchy, burning eyes.

The symptoms can last about five days or longer. People with the flu should drink plenty of water and can take ibuprofen to ease pain, doctors say. Oseltamivir, a prescription antiviral sold under the brand name Tamiflu, can lessen symptoms and shorten the duration of the illness.

Staying home for 24 hours after the fever has broken is the nicest thing you can do for your fellow man and co-workers, Crowder said.

“And cover your cough, wash your hands,” he added.

The good news is that this year’s vaccine is a good match for the circulating viruses in most cases, he said, although other strains are not out of the question. Influenza vaccinations are still widely available at pharmacies and clinics, Crowder added.

“If you have not gotten a shot, it’s not too late,” he said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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