- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2013

This year’s start to the flu season is the earliest in a decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, setting off a wave of doctor visits in mostly Southern states from Louisiana to Virginia that have been hard hit. Although the early onset doesn’t necessarily portend an epidemic, medical professionals say this year’s strain is particularly severe.

“I think it is much more serious than last year,” said Dr. David Berry, a pediatrician in Blacksburg, Va. “Last year, it was incredibly minor. This is the classic intense flu — headache, body ache, fevers of 103, 104.”

Many doctors reported seeing patients with the flu or flulike symptoms as early as Thanksgiving — well in advance of the typical bump in numbers of flu sufferers usually seen in December and January, CDC officials said. Dr. Berry said the earliest local report of the flu came in September and that he expected even more cases to be reported once schools opened after the holiday break.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden last month outlined the forecast for the 2012-13 flu season and identified the culprit as the H3N2 strain, a form that, although common, can be serious for young children and the elderly if left untreated. By mid-December, the CDC had recorded 16 pediatric deaths that were associated with influenza.

Officials said they saw the same strain of flu at work during the 2003-04 flu season, the last one to start as early as this year’s. They said that just because the season came early this year, it could peak early as well.

The CDC said 31 states, including Virginia, were reporting widespread flu activity around Christmas.

Laurie Folano, the deputy state epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health, explained that Virginia is considered to have widespread illness because more than half the state is reporting outbreaks. But, she said, “that’s not unique in the United States right now.”

“Nationally, levels of flu activity have been elevated for probably three weeks,” she said.

The state health department reviews laboratory data, as well as reported illnesses from emergency rooms and urgent-care clinics to determine just how much of the state is coming down with the flu, Ms. Folano said.

More flu cases typically are reported in mid-December and early January, but “definitely this year we’ve seen an earlier increase in activity,” she said.

Reports of flulike symptoms started in the South and Southeast and, in addition to Virginia, include Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

“The flu is hitting the nation rough,” said Dr. L. Lee Montgomery, a family physician in Baton Rouge, La. “It’s causing a lot of misery for people and a lot of time off work.”

Not only that, contracting the flu can be costly, Dr. Montgomery said. Factoring in doctor visits and medicine, the flu can cost a person upward of $300. A cheaper solution, he said, is a vaccine.

The vaccine produced this year is a good match for the flu that is going around, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said. But he said people can fall ill to another type of flu strain that the vaccine does not cover or could come into contact with the illness in the few weeks between the time they get the vaccine and the time it takes effect.

“We do know that people who are vaccinated, if they get sick with the flu, they tend to have more milder illness,” Mr. Skinner said. “But each flu is really unique in and of itself. There’s no explanation why we have mild seasons or why we have severe seasons.”

More than 120 million doses of the vaccine are available, and officials say it prevents illness in about 70 percent of healthy people.

The 19 CVS Minute Clinics in Northern Virginia already have doled out some 30,000 shots, said Anne Pohnert, the state practice manager for Minute Clinics in Virginia.

Ms. Pohnert said she had “personally seen quite a few cases” of the flu along with a “rather nasty cold virus that’s also out there.”

The Minute Clinics vaccinate patients 18 months and older, said Ms. Pohnert, who is also a family nurse practitioner.

“I would say the second two weeks of December we saw a sharp uptick,” Ms. Pohnert said. “Influenza is a reportable disease, and we’ve been reporting quite a number of cases all of a sudden.”

Ms. Folano said Southwest Virginia had reported a greater volume of cases, but the cause of that could be a result of more illness or the population make-up, or it could be that more doctors are reporting flulike illnesses.

Flu season typically runs three or four months, but that “doesn’t mean it can’t last longer than that or be briefer than that, since we started earlier,” Ms. Folano said. “The flu is unpredictable.”

In his December flu forecast, Dr. Frieden mirrored Ms. Folano’s comments, saying this year could shape up to be bad, and because of the uncertainty around the illness, the best thing to do was to get vaccinated.

“Flu is unpredictable. That’s probably the most predictable thing about it,” he said. “It looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell.”