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Local health officials are continuing to monitor the severe outbreak of influenza in the community at what is normally just the start of flu season.

“It is an early season,” said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, director of the Fairfax County Department of Health. “Normally influenza season peaks in the January to February time frame.”

Flu prevention tips

To avoid contracting influenza and to avoid spreading illness to others, health officials recommend:

Get the annual flu vaccine

Wash your hands regularly

Cover coughs and sneezes

Stay home from work or school when sick, for at least 24 hours after your fever breaks.

If you have not yet been vaccinated, it is not too late, according to the Fairfax County Health Department. Inova Health System has scheduled three public vaccination clinics:

Jan. 18, 3 to 6 p.m. at Inova Alexandria Hospital, IAH HEC Auditorium

Jan. 19, 1 to 4 p.m. at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital, Medical Plaza Building, Conference Room B

Jan. 26, 9 a.m. to noon at Inova Fairfax Hospital, Women’s Heath Atrium

Vaccinations are also available through the Fairfax County Health Department. See fairfaxcounty.gov/flu for details.

During the last five weeks, the health department has seen higher than normal activity in the areas they monitor to help paint a picture of how widespread the influenza virus is in the community.

Inova Health System also has seen higher than normal activity at its hospitals. Both the numbers of people with flu-like symptoms and the number of positive test results are more than double what they were during this period in the winter of 2010-2011 and exponentially higher than a year ago.

For example, the week of Jan. 6, 327 people at Inova facilities tested positive for flu compared to 11 the same week last year, according to data provided by Inova.

“We simply ramp up, we open more units and we bring in more staff,” said Tony Raker, public relations officer with Inova Health System.

However, Raker notes, people who believe they have the flu and are not in a high-risk category for developing complications from the disease don’t necessarily need to be seen in the emergency department; they can go to their regular physician or an urgent care facility.

On the positive side, the virus is not any more dangerous than normal, Addo-Ayensu said.

“It’s not that the virus is deadlier or more virulent or it is making people sicker,” she said.

For many people, having the flu means a few days of feeling miserable, but it is not life-threatening. However, the virus can be more severe in young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with underlying medical conditions, and thousands of people in the United States die from influenza every year.

To help protect hospital patients and staff, Inova has place restrictions on visitors to its hospitals. Anyone with flu-like symptoms will not be allowed to visit patients in the hospital, and visitors may be issued masks or other protective clothing.

This is not the first time the hospital system has taken such measures, but it also is not something that happens every flu season, Raker said.

Health officials also are continuing to encourage people to get a flu shot if they have not done so already. Having greater immunity in the community as a whole helps protect those who are more susceptible to becoming seriously ill with the flu, Addo-Ayensu said.

This year’s flu vaccine is a very good match for the top three strains of the influenza virus now circulating, according to Addo-Ayensu. Even people who have already had flu-like illness should still get vaccinated, she said, because they could still catch one of the other strains, or they might have been sick with a different type of virus.

The vaccine is still readily available at most locations, including the county health department. Inova also has scheduled some additional public vaccination clinics in response to the outbreak.

“We recommend that everyone who can get the vaccine get it,” Addo-Ayensu said. “There is no reason people shouldn’t be taking advantage of it.”

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com