Photo By: Photo by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Los Altos isn’t yet seeing the level of flu infection causing worry on the East Coast, but the season is heating up here, too. At Walgreens pharmacy on Second Street, vaccine supplies ran out for a day last week. When the new shipment arrived, local residents queued up in clusters at the back of the store waiting for a jab.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone older than six months should be immunized with the flu vaccine. The CDC tweeted a warning last week – 128 of 135 million total doses have already been distributed. The vaccine may become increasingly difficult to obtain.
Jim Reynolds, one of the proprietors at Present gift store in downtown Los Altos, patiently waited his turn at Walgreens last week and said that reports of rising infections inspired his belated signup for the shot.
“I just kind of put it off,” he said, but “I watched the news and it’s getting bad around the United States, and I figured maybe I ought to participate.”
Los Altos resident Keane Johnson turned out for the shot after receiving an email from his rowing coach announcing that unvaccinated players wouldn’t be allowed to participate in practice. He was heading back to Boston College, where he’s a senior. Boston declared a state of public health emergency due to influenza last week, followed a few days later by New York State.
Charles Weiss, a doctor with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation who contributes to the group’s flu blog, reported that local influenza surveillance showed an uptick last week, with more than 10 percent of tests for influenza returning positive for the virus. But the total number of infected patients numbers in the dozens, not hundreds. He said the California region has been among the last to see elevated infections.
The state isn’t always last to start sniffling – Weiss notes that during the 2009 flu pandemic, California reported the first cases in the U.S.
Weiss said most of the sufferers in this area could weather a case of the flu at home, calling advice nurses as needed. But he noted that people in high-risk groups such as the very young or old and those with medical conditions that elevate the risk of complications should see a doctor if they become ill.
Pneumonia, one of the most common flu complications, occurs when the flu virus temporarily damages the lining of the respiratory tract, impairing its ability to clear itself. One warning sign of pneumonia occurs when a flu patient is getting better and suddenly becomes worse, or has a return of fever. Last year in Santa Clara County, eight patients required ICU-level hospitalization for influenza and one person died. As of Jan. 5, only one person has been similarly hospitalized this year.
Anti-viral agents such as Tamiflu can reduce the symptoms or duration of the flu, but their effect is moderate. Because the virus develops resistance as more Tamiflu is used, prescribing the treatment isn’t widespread for people at low risk of flu complications.
“There’s always reticence on the part of public health to distribute on a widespread basis a medicine that we worry about resistance developing to,” Weiss said. “It may reduce symptoms for about a day – but the overall benefit’s not as big (for typical flu sufferers) as it for the people at risk.”
He emphasized infection control measures, including staying home until a fever has been gone for 24 hours. People can spread the virus for five to seven days but tend to be more infectious while they have a fever.
Is it flu?
Wondering if you’ve already caught the flu this year? Sarah Cody, M.D., a deputy health officer for Santa Clara County, noted that the illness many called the “stomach flu” as children was most likely a norovirus, the pesky bug that causes 24-48 hours of extreme intestinal discomfort.
In contrast, “influenza virus gives you a high fever, cough, runny nose and headache, and in some groups of people it can be very serious and land them in the hospital or even cause death,” Cody said. “Kids can get vomiting with influenza, but it’s not one of the big features.”
Because one person can be hit harder by a virus than another, it can be difficult to distinguish between influenza and a cold, but Cody said body aches, chills and a feeling of just being “knocked out” tend to reflect influenza.
“If you feel run down, your nose is running, you feel kind of cruddy but you can kind of manage – that’s more coldlike symptoms,” she said. “The only one of these winter respiratory viruses that’s vaccine preventable is influenza. If you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated. It certainly is going to give you a better chance.”
It takes approximately two weeks to get the full benefit of the vaccine and develop immunity. The CDC reported last week that this year’s vaccine appears to have 62 percent efficacy at preventing the illness, which is comparable to most years.
Each vaccine dose this year includes three flu strains, H2N3, H1N1 and Flu B, which match approximately 91 percent of the circulating influenza viruses detected by CDC analysis. The predominant strain currently in circulation, H2N3, is associated with higher numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.
Joe Bresee, a doctor in the CDC’s Influenza Division, said that while flu season timing is hard to predict, the virus would likely continue to be active for some time. Flu season usually peaks in January or February, but some years, infections surge as early as November and as late as April.
Residents who want to participate in local flu-tracking efforts may register at flunearyou.org.