- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

With the flu outbreak in the area apparently at its peak, some health officials say the “crisis” is no bigger this year than in years past.

“[The flu] is not as big a problem as it seems,” said Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore city health commissioner, yesterday. “Every year, 10 [percent] to 20 percent of all Americans get the flu. We always have emergency rooms overloaded with flu patients in December, January and February.”

About 15 percent of U.S. residents contract the flu and about 36,000 die of it each year. The season started early this year, health officials said, and the number of deaths is likely to equal those from last year. Fatalities generally are concentrated among the sick and elderly.

“There’s been an immense amount of media hype that’s fueling demand for the shot,” Dr. Beilenson said, noting that Baltimore gave out 3,200 flu shots last year, while this year, the city will run out of 5,000 flu shots.

Dr. Beilenson also said that statistics on the number of flu cases should be taken with a grain of salt, because the vast majority of people who get the flu don’t see a doctor or visit the hospital, and most hospitals don’t test patients specifically for influenza.

Reports last week that 42 children had died nationwide of the virus fueled flu worries, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta didn’t have comparable statistics to show whether flu-related child deaths were on the rise.

J.B. Hanson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said he thought that the numbers, while tragic, are no higher than in past years and that this season’s flu strain isn’t singling out youngsters.

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

Meanwhile, the last remaining flu shots in the D.C. area were doled out yesterday as health officials said influenza cases seem to have peaked.

All but five states have reported “widespread” cases of the flu, the nation’s highest level of infection, according to the CDC. Widespread cases have been reported in the District, Maryland and Virginia since early this month.

The District saw a spike in flu-related emergency-room cases on Dec. 15, and activity seems to be leveling off, said Dr. Walter Faggett, a pediatrician and interim chief medical officer for the D.C. Department of Health.

Flu activity in Virginia also seems to be slowing down, said Michelle Stoll, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Health.

Children being on vacation from school during the holiday might help prevent the spread of the virus, Miss Stoll said.

“If schools have cases of the flu, having that time when kids are out could definitely help to slow it down,” she said.

Flu shots were given out in Baltimore, Prince George’s County and in the District yesterday, and few doses of the vaccine remain. Fairfax County is out of flu shots, according to a recorded message.

Baltimore gave out about 600 shots yesterday, saving about 100 for high-risk residents.

In the District, workers at the Spring Road Clinic gave out a few hundred doses of flu shots yesterday, Dr. Faggett said.

In Prince George’s County, the vaccine still is available for residents by appointment at clinics, and there were more than 1,000 doses of FluMist nasal-spray flu vaccine as of yesterday, said county spokeswoman Patricia Sullivan.

FluMist can be given to healthy people between ages 5 and 49, and the sparse flu shot can be given to infants, people with medical conditions and those older than 65.

Maryland officials yesterday reported 1,272 confirmed flu cases this season, compared with 147 in the past season. There have been no reported flu deaths in the state this season, compared with 13 last season.

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

CDC officials reported earlier this month that they would study the 42 child deaths. It did not release the number of adult flu deaths this season. The number of flu deaths is an estimate based on the spread of the virus in a particular area, symptoms and other factors.

Last week, the D.C. Department of Health warned against an illegal flu vaccine, calling it “questionable,” and recommended that residents get flu shots only from licensed health care providers.

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