Fighting flu on minds of many

December 21, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

Live evergreen tree: $20.

Average amount spent on holiday gifts: $734.

Making it through the holiday season without getting the flu ... priceless.

Flu has hit the Tri-State area with a vengeance this month, giving whole new meaning to the phrase, "'tis the season."

Hospitals throughout the Tri-State area are reporting a spike in cases of people coming to the emergency room with symptoms such as fever, cough and muscle aches.


Unfortunately, there's little doctors can do to treat the virus other than recommend that you rest and drink a lot of fluids.

For most flu sufferers, it's a matter of simply letting the illness run its course, which could take as little as a few days or as long as three weeks, doctors said.

The good news is people can take steps to ward off the flu, especially through frequent handwashing, said Ann Baker, communicable disease nurse at the Washington County Health Department.

If you're already sick, keep your germs to yourself by sneezing into a tissue and staying away from others, she said.

One area hospital is asking patients with cold or flu symptoms to wear masks to prevent the spread of germs.

City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., began the new procedure last week, said Edie McGoff, emergency department manager.

"That's probably going to be a norm all year-round here," she said. "I like being proactive."

In a normal winter, flu season peaks in February, said Dr. David Carlson, vice president of medical affairs at Summit Health in Chambersburg, Pa.

But the last three weeks have brought numerous cases, suggesting a much earlier peak, he said.

At least that's the hope.

"Otherwise, it's going to be a long winter," he said.

Dr. Scott Diering, an emergency room physician at Washington County Hospital, said he expects to see even more cases.

"I don't think we've seen the worst. I think we have a lot worse coming," he said.

Diering said the people he's seen with flu this year have been particularly ravaged.

"Just devastated. Not caring to move. Just laid out flat," he said.

Most of the time, emergency room doctors can do little to help other than rule out more serious medical problems.

"I see our role here as reassurance," he said.

A prescription anti-viral medicine is on the market, but it only works if taken within 48 hours of the first symptoms. Even then, it only shortens the illness by about a day, he said.

"It will get better regardless of what we do," Diering said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, flu is widespread in 36 states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Maryland has reported regional outbreaks.

Nationwide, flu has claimed the lives of 42 children, prompting the CDC on Friday to activate its emergency operations center to deal with the outbreak.

It's too early to tell how severe the flu season will be, according to CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding. But in response to a question, she said at a briefing that the number of cases - and the child deaths - indicate the outbreak could be classified as an epidemic.

At a time when people may need it most, little of the vaccine is available, health officials said.

Washington County Health Department is expecting a shipment of FluMist, a new vaccine in the form of a nasal spray, Baker said.

But FluMist is approved only for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49.

The CDC has ordered doses of vaccine that are safe for all ages, but it's unknown when that will be distributed, she said.

Even those who received a flu shot might not be fully protected because it does not protect against one of the most common strains being seen, she said.

The vaccine should still help make the symptoms less severe, she said.

Most flu deaths are actually a result of complications such as pneumonia, Diering said.

Local day-care centers are taking their usual precautions to prevent infection by sterilizing toys and having children and employees wash their hands frequently.

"It certainly is on everyone's mind in child care," said Annette Searfoss, project director at Apples for Children of Hagerstown.

Other than a few sniffles, My Favorite Place day-care center in Smithsburg has not seen any flu cases yet, Director Laura Duvall said.

"I'd like to think that keeping their hands washed is helping," she said.

Attendance at Washington County Public Schools began being affected by the flu on Dec. 8, when three schools reported absences of at least 10 percent, spokeswoman Carol Mowen said.

On Tuesday, four schools reported unusually high absentee rates due to colds and flu. They were Boonsboro Middle School and Bester, Hancock and Smithsburg elementary schools, Mowen said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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