Virginia flu season 'on par' with last year

Flu season has arrived early and several Southern states have already reported unusually extensive activity. In Virginia, too, it started a couple of weeks ahead of last year, according to the Health Department's surveillance data.

However, in the level of activity Virginia's flu season is now on par with 2011, reaching the "local" stage this week, exactly the same time as last year, said Laurie Forlano, deputy state epidemiologist for the state. Up until now, it ranked as "sporadic," the lowest level.

Forlano is adopting a "wait-and-see" attitude as there's no way to predict the course or severity of a flu season. Last year, the peak incidence in Virginia occurred late, not until late February before tapering off rapidly in mid-March.

Both locally and nationally, health clinics are urging vaccinations for everyone over the age of 6 months. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control adopted a "universal" policy regarding flu vaccines.

"Vaccination is definitely the best prevention," said Forlano, noting that Virginia scores better than the national average in providing vaccine coverage. "There's room to go up, but we do well, particularly with older adults." Last year, more than 63 percent Virginia seniors received the flu vaccine, while 56 percent of other adults in the state did. Nationally, just a third of the population has received the vaccine for the 2012/13 season.

This year's formulation protects against the HINI, which first appeared in 2009, Influenza B and H3N2. In the past, the latter has coincided with severe outbreaks, Forlano said. "The vaccine seems pretty well matched to the strains that have been characterized across the country," she added. Each year, the flu virus typically causes 200,000 hospitalizations and more than 35,000 deaths. The elderly, those with compromised immune systems and chronic conditions, and young children are the most vulnerable.

At the Hampton Health District, epidemiologist Nancy Lemis has observed a low level of flu activity to date. Its immunization clinic offers this year's vaccine to adults and children daily during the week. "We offer it to whoever comes in," said Lemis. She cautioned that the shots aren't free, though there are exceptions for both children and adults, according to need. Otherwise, most insurance plans cover flu shots, as does Medicare Part B for seniors. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the antibodies to develop maximum protection.

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