The flu gallops across Arkansas

Monday, December 1, 2003

Carroll County had not officially reported a case of influenza as of Wednesday afternoon, but a spokesman for the Arkansas Health Department warned it would be "unsafe to assume that the flu had not hit" here.

"We have positive indications of flu all around you," said Ed Barham, public information officer with the health department. "It's being reported in Benton, Washington, Madison, and Boone counties."

He said that since there was no requirement that private physicians have tests done to confirm cases of flu, "it could be there and just not showing up on our map" (of confirmed cases).

Barham characterized the outbreak in Arkansas as "overwhelming. It's absolutely galloping across the state."

He said that due to a glitch in the department's e-mail reporting system, which updates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta with weekly flu counts, Arkansas is currently being erroneously shown on its Web site as having not filed a report at all for the week ending Nov. 15.

"We actually now have confirmed reports in 57 of our 75 counties, making Arkansas among the hardest hit so far," Barham said. The state's flu classification has been raised from "regional" to "widespread," the same classification of flu involvement in Texas and Nevada, where the disease emerged two weeks ago and where several flu-related deaths have been reported. Colorado, classified as having a less-severe regional outbreak, has reported several deaths attributable to the flu.

Flu season has arrived early this year, and according to the CDC, it could be more severe than usual. Flu viruses are already circulating at a higher level than normal across the state. "We usually don't see flu cases in Arkansas until mid-December," Barham said. "That we're already classifying the flu as widespread is an indication of how severe it is."

The CDC pointed out that the flu virus has also shifted this year, so the shot might not work as well against one strain of the flu. But it's still the best way to decrease your chances of getting sick, according to Dr. William E. Golden, vice president for clinical quality improvement at the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care (AFMC). "The flu shot can also reduce the severity of symptoms if you do get sick," said Golden. "So don't wait. Get a flu shot as soon as possible."

Flu shots can't give you the flu, he said. "The flu vaccine is safe and effective," said Golden. "It takes a week or two after getting the shot for your body to build up its defense and develop maximum protection, so if you get your shot now, you'll be protected as the season continues."

Although the flu shot cannot give you the flu, a small number of people might experience some soreness around the vaccination site or have mild side effects such as a headache or low-grade fever. The most serious side effect of the flu shot is a reaction from people who are allergic to eggs. Since the viruses used in the flu vaccine are grown in eggs, people with an allergy to eggs should not get a flu shot.

Everyone over 50 years of age should get an annual flu shot, says the CDC. It's also important for people who have a heart condition, respiratory condition, anemia, asthma, diabetes or renal (kidney) disease to be immunized as soon as possible, Golden said, but he said anyone who is exposed to the flu -- at work, sc hool, daycare or church, for example --can get the flu, and should consider getting a flu shot.

Arkansans should also consider a pneumonia shot, which helps prevent complications of pneumococcal pneumonia, Golden said.

The vaccine, needed only once in a lifetime for most people, can be taken on the same day as the flu shot, he said.

Medicare, Medicaid and most other health plans cover pneumonia and flu shots, which are available through local health care providers.

Some employers in the state also are offering flu shots in the workplace.

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