Allegheny County certainly isn't immune from the widespead outbreak of influenza reported by the Pennsylvania Health Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Allegheny County Health Department reports four local deaths in the last few weeks have been attributed to the influenza Type A virus. All four deaths have been patients 65 years or older, with the oldest victim 98 years old, according to Dr. Jim Lando, acting director of the department's Office of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
"Influenza does take people each year," he said. "That's why we do recommend that people get vaccinated."
Lando said that between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31, 2012—the most up-to-date reporting period this flu season—there had been 215 confirmed cases of influenza in the county. During the last week of December, the state health department reports that almost 10 percent of all doctor visits were due to influenza and that 3,193 flu cases were reported statewide.
"We are definitely seeing an increase in influenza-type illnesses," Lando said, noting the cases already are more than are usually reported by late January/early February. "It's a month and a half earlier than we normally see it."
St. Clair Hospital doctors said last month they noticed the flu season starting earlier than usual.
In years when a vaccine shortage is reported, people seem to be more dilgent about being immunized, Lando said. This year, the vaccine is readily available, yet a lot of people have put off being immunized. Generally, it takes about two weeks after getting the vaccine to build up enough antibodies to ward off a bad case of the flu.
"My message to people is that if they haven't been vaccinated, they should do it before the vaccine runs out," Lando said. "It's not too late. If you get the influenza and you've been immunized, you'll have a more mild case. The vast majority of people who are healthy can weather influenza."
But more vulnerable people—the elderly, the frail, those with chronic disease and pregnant women—should be vigilant if symptoms, such as a persistent cough, get worse. Because the flu lowers the body's defenses, people often die of bacterial pneumonia that results from the infection.
The vaccine, which uses the body's natural defenses to fight flu as it invades the system, is better than relying on drugs to fight the symptoms after infection has occurred. Lando said that while Tamiflu and other antivirals can provide some relief, they are "minimally effective." He said people expect medication to make them better when, in fact, "in terms of viruses, we don't really have that much."
Lando advises those who contract flu-like symptoms to treat the symptoms, stay hydrated and keep away from others. Instead of jamming doctors' offices and emergency rooms for a virus that will run its course, he said just stay home unless the symptoms get worse. He also advised that people who go to work because they feel "indispensable" should instead take a sick day instead of passing the virus on to others.
There are some things you can do to try to stop the spread of the disease—or keep from contracting it:
- "Wash your hands frequently if you have a cold or prepare food," Lando said. "The hand sanitizers have some effectiveness but they're secondary to washing your hands for 30 seconds."
- Disinfectant wipes can be used on door knobs, phones and keyboards, but only those that kill viruses are effective.
- "If you have a cold, cover your cough," Lando said. "Cough into the crook of your arm, not your hand."
For more information from the county health department on who is at risk for getting the flu and what to do if you get sick, click here.