Houston, we have the flu.
Last week, the Houston Health Department reported that between 1,300 and 1,600 individuals with flu-like symptoms have been seeking care at emergency rooms every week, based on activity at 42 local hospitals.
It’s not too late to get a flu shot, as “flu activity will increase over the next several weeks,” according to a press release from the city quoting David Persse, M.D., physician director of Houston’s Emergency Medical Services and the public health authority for the Houston Health Department.
Already, local physicians are confirming the uptick in visits.
“Over the past couple of weeks, Texas Children’s has seen an increased number of patients presenting with flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, runny nose, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, abdominal pain, nausea/vomiting and diarrhea,” said Kay Leaming-Van Zandt, M.D., medical director of the Texas Children’s Hospital West Campus Emergency Center.
Typically, the flu season peaks during this time—between December and February—but often lasts through the spring months.
The virus can be deadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 79,400 people died from the flu during the 2017-2018 flu season. The agency also noted that the percentage of deaths attributed to the flu and pneumonia was “at or above the epidemic threshold for 16 consecutive weeks.”
“Flu illness can go beyond the typical fever, body aches and fatigue,” said Porfirio Villarreal, a Houston Health Department spokesman. “It can lead to severe life-threatening complications, especially in people considered part of high-risk groups such as children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with chronic illnesses.”
Leaming-Van Zandt said that while many flu symptoms can be treated at home, more severe cases often require hospitalizations.
“Symptomatic treatment, including fever-reducing medications, nasal saline/suctioning, fluids (such as water, Gatorade, Pedialyte) and rest can help ensure a safe and comfortable recovery,” Leaming-Van Zandt said. “Most healthy children are able to be discharged home from the emergency center, however, those with chronic medical illnesses and/or severe symptoms (i.e., fast and/or increased work of breathing, significant dehydration, severe pain) may need to be hospitalized for additional treatment and care.”
On Friday, the CDC released an estimate that between 6 million and 7 million people have been sick with flu during the 2018-2019 season, which has been less severe than last season. As many as half of those people have sought medical care for their illness. Between Oct. 1, 2018 and Jan. 5, 2019, there have been as many as 83,500 flu-related hospitalization across the United States. The CDC expects flu activity to continue for weeks and recommends flu vaccination as well as the appropriate use of antiviral medications.
Last season, flu activity began to increase in November—peaking in January and February and remaining high through the end of March. Experts have observed similar trends this year, which is why public health officials are urging everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. By getting a flu shot, not only are individuals protecting themselves from the virus, but they are also protecting those who cannot be vaccinated or who are most at risk from becoming severely ill from the flu.
Vaccination can save lives and reduce the severity of disease. Most U.S. deaths every flu season are people 65 and older. So far this season, 16 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported to the CDC. According to the agency, approximately 80 percent of the children who died from flu complications during the 2017-2018 season had not been vaccinated.
Flu vaccines are widely available from doctor’s offices, local pharmacies, or clinics embedded in grocery stores for the most convenience. For those who cannot afford the fee, the Houston Health Department offers flu shots on a sliding scale, ranging from no cost to $15. To learn more, visit HoustonHealth.org or call 311.
This story was updated on Jan. 15, 2019.
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