- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

Federal health officials yesterday reported that 42 children have died of influenza this season, and the CDC is treating the viral outbreak as if it were an “epidemic.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta announced it has begun a study of the 42 child deaths, though CDC officials have no comparative numbers to show whether there has been an increase in flu cases this year. About 15 percent of U.S. residents contract the flu and about 36,000 die of it each year.

“When we look at this map, we regard it from a common-sense perspective as an epidemic,” said CDC Director Julie Gerberding, adding that the outbreak is not technically an epidemic. “There is more widespread activity for this time of year, compared with most years.”

But Dr. Gerberding urged people not to crowd emergency rooms. “Flu is something that for the vast majority of people can be managed at home,” she said. “It’s not necessary to seek medical attention unless there is concern.”

Locally, health officials yesterday reported that a Virginia sailor has died of the flu, bringing the state’s total to six flu deaths this season. Chief Petty Officer George Ashbaugh, 38, died as a result of the flu, according to Lt. Jacky Fisher, public affairs officer for Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va.

The CDC did not release the number of adult flu deaths this season. The number of flu deaths is and estimate based on the spread of the virus in a particular area, symptoms and other factors. Not all hospitals test for the flu.

Thirty-six states, including Virginia, have reported “widespread” cases of the flu, the nation’s highest level of infection, the CDC said. Maryland and the District are in the “regional” category, meaning the outbreak has not spread beyond metropolitan areas.

Dr. Gerberding said she expects more states to join the “widespread” list in coming weeks and that no state has been untouched by the flu. The CDC has activated its emergency operations center and has established response teams to help states with the outbreak.

Flu symptoms, which include muscle aches and fever, come on quickly and resemble those of a bad cold — stuffy nose, sore throat, coughs, chills and headache.

Many health officials said that while the flu season this year started two months earlier than usual, it likely will not be any worse than in years past.

“The early start was alarming us. If the flu season starts earlier, there is more potential for people to spread it and more sickness,” said Michelle Stoll, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health.

Maryland health officials said they reported their first confirmed flu case of the season on Nov. 19. The first confirmed case last season was reported Jan. 22.

“Not only has it arrived earlier, it’s hit harder,” said J.B. Hanson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Mr. Hanson said that as of yesterday there were 801 confirmed flu cases this season, compared with 147 in the same period of last season. However, there have been no flu deaths in Maryland so far this season, compared with 13 last season, he said.

In Virginia, 18 persons died of the flu last year; six have died so far this season.

“There’s no place that’s untouched in [Virginia],” said Miss Stoll. “It’s safe to assume that, unfortunately, there will be more deaths [to come] this year.”

There have been no flu deaths in the District this season, compared with two last season, said Dr. Walter Faggett, a pediatrician and interim chief medical officer for the D.C. Department of Health.

“The flu is not usually dangerous for folks who are healthy,” he said.

The CDC’s Dr. Gerberding said at least 16 of the 42 children who have died were sick before they caught the flu and more than half were under the age of 5.

Dr. Faggett said children 6 months to 2 years old have the highest risk of getting the flu because their underdeveloped immune systems aren’t able to resist the virus. In one 24-hour period, 300 children visited a D.C. hospital with flu symptoms but only 100 actually had the virus, he said.

While children have higher chances of getting the flu, this season’s flu strain isn’t singling out youngsters — some health officials blame a media frenzy for making it seem more children are getting the flu than normal.

“This is not the children’s flu. It’s the flu and this is the flu season,” Mr. Hanson said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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