Flu season starting earlier, hitting younger adults in Whatcom County

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 10, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The flu season is starting earlier and hitting young adults harder this year, according to Whatcom County health officials.

The start of flu season coincided with the holidays: From Dec. 29 to Jan. 4, there were 19 positive influenza tests reported at the PeaceHealth Laboratories and four lab-confirmed flu-related hospitalizations, according to the Whatcom County influenza report.

"Right now in Whatcom County and in Washington state we really are having a lot of influenza," said Joni Hensley, communicable disease supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department.

The reported numbers are "just the tip of the iceberg," Hensley said. They don't include people who were sick but didn't go to the doctor or cases that doctors didn't have tested.

Traditionally, flu season starts here in mid-February or March, though last year it started in early January. This flu season started around Christmas, Hensley said, and holiday socializing could add to the spread.

During the first week of 2013, there was only one confirmed flu-related hospitalization - compared to four this year - with none at this time in the two years before that. Those hospitalizations can be an indicator of flu severity, according to the report.

The flu strain that seems to be hitting people right now is the H1N1 virus from 2009. This year's flu vaccine includes that strain, so Hensley hopes it will be a good match. People who consider themselves young and healthy shouldn't skip out on their flu shot this year, she said, because they're the ones who are getting hit hardest by it.

"This particular strain is predominantly affecting that age group," she said.

The flu is starting to show up early in schools, too, said Tobi Melton, a school nurse for the Bellingham School District. She's starting to see students who have been affected by H1N1 and is seeing a lot of students with the aches and high fever often associated with the flu. She advised anyone - students and staff - with flu symptoms to stay home to help curb the spread of the virus.

"It's that fine line of, if you really, truly are sick, stay home," she said.

FLU SHOTS, INFORMATION

For more information about influenza, go to co.whatcom.wa.us/health/flu. Flu shots are available at doctor's offices, clinics and pharmacies across Whatcom County. It takes about two weeks after the shot for antibodies to develop to protect against the virus, so people are advised not to wait to get vaccinated.

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com.

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