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Article published January 16, 2013
Influenza spread spurs precautions
Getting shots still encouraged
Kelly B. Garrett Butler Eagle
Butler County is one of the harder hit counties in Pennsylvania for flu that is widespread in the state. But it is not the public health crisis in Pennsylvania that has been declared in other states. Butler and Washington counties each is listed by the state Department of Health as having from 276 to 390 lab-confirmed flu cases. Those cases must be reported to the state Department of Health as part of its Influenza Surveillance Program. Only Allegheny and Westmoreland counties rank higher in the number of reported cases in Western Pennsylvania, according to the health department, with a range from 391 to 976 cases. Influenza is caused by a seasonal virus with symptoms of fever, cough, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. Dr. Tom McGill, an infectious disease control doctor and vice president of quality and safety for the Butler Health System, said one reason the number of influenza sufferers is higher this year than in recent years may be attributed to a new testing technique that is more accurate than any other test. That could mean more cases are being diagnosed now than in the past. Also, the flu season, which is recognized as lasting from December to March each year, seemed to start earlier this year. First reports of state residents with influenza were made in early December. “In the past decade, the flu usually hits around January, so while this year it did start within the defined flu season, it was a bit earlier than it has been,” McGill said. Once the flu is found in a community, it can linger 10 to 14 weeks, so McGill encourages everyone who has not gotten a flu shot to get one as soon as possible. “It can still be useful to get one and help cut down on the number of cases,” he said. Cecelia Foster, executive director of the Community Health Clinic of Butler County, which offers care to uninsured adults ages 18 to 64, said clinic patients are reporting cases of the flu. “We have encouraged them to get the flu vaccine, and those who think they have the flu, we’ve asked not to come into the clinic so it is not spread among other patients and our staff,” she said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said this year’s vaccine is a direct match to the flu virus that has been found in patients. As for treatment, people who display symptoms of the flu should see their doctor as quickly as possible if they want to get antiviral medications. “These medications really do reduce the severity and the length of the flu, but you have to get it early to have it work,” McGill said. Because of the flu, Concordia Lutheran Ministries in Jefferson Township starting in December began limiting group events and having health care professionals in Concordia’s skilled and personal care facilities wear isolation gowns so as not to spread the flu virus from patient to patient, according to Frank Skrip, spokesman for Concordia. Concordia includes independent living to hospice care services. “We have asked all visitors and staff members not to come to the campus if they are sick, and handwashing is very important here at Concordia,” Skrip said. Patients diagnosed with the flu are isolated until they get over their illness. Those patients also receive their meals on paper products instead of regular trays and dishware, again to cut down on contamination. Skrip said while health care providers are not required to get the flu vaccine, Concordia does offer incentives to encourage its staff to get the shot. Statewide 22 deaths have been attributed to the illness, state health officials said. There have been more than 11,000 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in the state since the flu season began in mid-December, with nearly 4,300 of those reported last week alone.