- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2001

Area hospitals are increasing staffing and urging immunizations for elderly and at-risk residents to combat an outbreak of influenza.

Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., has treated record numbers of patients with flu symptoms, with emergency-room visits up 50 patients a day.

Inova Fairfax Hospital's (Va.) emergency department, which typically handles 180 to 190 patients a day, is now seeing 200 to 220.

"This is the time we usually get swamped," said Paula Faria, a spokeswoman at Georgetown University Hospital, which is treating 15 percent to 20 percent more patients than usual.

Said Prince William Hospital (Va.) spokeswoman Donna Ballou: "We've been extremely busy in the past week … . We're seeing the flu in all ages."

Virginia and Rhode Island are the only states that have "widespread" flu activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Maryland, the virus is "regional," or found in isolated pockets.

The agency does not track activity in the District of Columbia.

The case rate is higher than normal this year in the District, said Dr. Andrew Schamess of the D.C. Health Department. He attributes the increase to the colder-than-usual temperatures and a vaccine shortage.

Nationwide, "it's a slow-starting season," said Chuck Fallis, a CDC spokesman.

Exact numbers are not reported to the CDC.

The CDC estimates about 5 million doses of the flu vaccine are still available and recommends "high-risk persons," like those with chronic illnesses, get their shots.

For each additional million elderly vaccinated this season, about 900 deaths and 1,300 hospitalizations can be prevented, the CDC estimates.

"It's not too late," said Mr. Fallis. "The flu season can last into March and April."

Typical flu symptoms include fever and respiratory symptoms like coughing, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose. Headaches, muscle aches and extreme fatigue often accompany the flu, as well as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Most flu sufferers recover in a week or two. In an average year, the infection is associated with more than 20,000 deaths in the United States.

The flu isn't the only problem this winter: Scarlet fever also is causing parents to run out to the doctor.

Suburban Maryland school districts are reporting dozens of cases this month, after D.C. public schools announced infections in seven schools earlier this month.

"We're not calling it an outbreak," said Jeff Roche, acting state epidemiologist with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "Before we can do that, we need evidence that it was transmitted from one child to another."

The District's chief health officer, Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, said at a recent news conference: "What we have is a lot of people with scarlet fever, but not more than we would have during a particularly cold year."

Because doctors no longer are required to report cases of the illness to the state, officials do not have an accurate figure on the total number of cases.

"The health department is not concerned about the number of cases," said Brian Porter, spokesman for the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, noting that the numbers are not large in relation to the overall size of the 134,000-student school system.

Health officials said scarlet fever no longer causes deadly epidemics that made it so feared in the 1800s because it is treatable with antibiotics.

It is caused by the same streptococcus bacteria that cause strep throat. Symptoms are similar to strep throat sore throat, fever, trouble swallowing, swollen lymph nodes and possible ear and sinus infections.

Those with scarlet fever also get a red, sandpaper-textured rash and a swollen, reddened tongue from which the disease get its name. Some also get white spots on their tonsils.

It is spread through person-to-person contact, usually involving direct contact. Children are particularly susceptible due to being confined in classrooms and their sometimes-poor hygiene, said Mr. Roche.

Treatment consists of a 10-day antibiotic regimen. After 24 hours of antibiotics, a person is no longer contagious and may return safely to school or work.

But left untreated, scarlet fever can cause damage to vital organs. Parents are urged to take their children to the doctor if they show signs of a sore throat, a high fever, an earache or a rash.

• Capital News Service contributed to this report.

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