Flu hits Sussex County...hard

By Melissa Steele

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

A surge of young people with the flu has Sussex County leading the state in reported cases, prompting a local hospital to restrict visitation for children under the age of 16.

"We're seeing it earlier this year, and we're seeing more of it," said Kelly Griffindirector of marketing and communications for Beebe Healthcare.

Beebe instituted a temporary visitor policy Dec. 26 prohibiting visitors under the age of 16 from seeing patients or even waiting alone in the reception areas, Griffin said.

"The decision was made to protect the health and safety of children and patients," she said.

Children and teens younger than 16 are at a greater risk for flu complications and remain contagious longer than adults, Griffin said. While most people with flu experience a mild illness and don't need medical care, she said, those with chronic illnesses, such as many Beebe patients, are at a high risk for developing complications such as pneumonia.

"Flu is the most common cause of viral pneumonia in adults," she said.

In the event of an end-of-life situation, Griffin said, the hospital would make an exception for family members on a case-by-case basis.

Griffin said Beebe will return to its normal visitation policy once the flu threat subsides.

According to weekly flu statistics compiled by the Division of Public Health, patients between the ages of 5 and 24 lead the state in reported flu cases. In Sussex County, there were 274 total cases - about 43 percent of the statewide cases, according to public health statistics released Dec. 29 for week 51 of 2014. Sussex County also had two flu deaths - the only deaths reported so far this flu season, said Emily Knearl, section chief, Health and Risk Communication for the Division of Public Health/Department of Health and Social Services. In both deaths, she said, patients had underlying health issues.

"Sussex and Kent counties have been hit particularly hard," she said. At 236 reported cases, Kent County trails Sussex by 38 cases. There have been 632 cases reported statewide.

Although school-age residents lead the number of reported cases, statistics show residents over the age of 65 are the most likely to be hospitalized. In Sussex County, there have been 17 patients over the age of 65 hospitalized compared to a total of five for the remaining age categories.

This time last year, only 70 cases of flu had been reported statewide. This year, there have been 632, according to the latest public health statistics. In 2012, statewide numbers were 309, and there were only two in 2011.

Public health pulls its statistics from flu cases confirmed by a laboratory. Patients who are not tested are not counted in the statistic.

"There definitely are more cases out there," Kneal said.

Predicting how this year's flu season will measure up is difficult because it is still early, she said.

"We're not sure if we're in for a worse season than before or if we're peaking early," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported high levels of flu activity over half the country and expects it to continue over several weeks, according to its website. Delaware is among 36 states where the flu is considered widespread.

Knearl said vaccinating against the flu is a person's best defense. Although the flu shot may not entirely prevent contracting the flu, if one does get the flu, chances are it will be milder than if one did not get a flu shot, she said.

"It's not too late to get vaccinated," she said.

Other ways to prevent the spread of flu germs include washing hands with soap or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, Knearl said. People should also cover their mouths with a tissue when they cough or sneeze because droplets from a sneeze can travel up to 6 feet. When sick, she said, people should stay at home and not return to school or work until they have been free of fever for 24 hours.

Antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza can help fight the effects of the flu, according to the CDC website. However, the CDC said, the drugs must be taken during the early onset of the flu in order to combat symptoms.

Amid questions that this year's flu shot is ineffective against this year's flu strain, Awele Maduka-Ezeh, medical director for public health, said this year's flu strain is only slightly different from the strain in the vaccination.

"There's been some mutation," she said. "It might take a body time to recognize it, but it will eventually recognize and be able to fight it off."

Maduka-Ezeh said public health clinics and pharmacies across the state continue to offer flu shots.

"We're begging people to get a flu shot," she said. "So get your flu shot, because it's the best defense we have."


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