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Hard hitting flu season comes early to Sonoma County

By: Katherine Minkiewicz
December 29, 2017

Colder temperatures and the increase of irritating colds and flus circulating around often take hold during the winter months following the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21. However, the start of the flu season for Sonoma County has come early this year and a local Kaiser infectious disease doctor says this season could be a real tough one with a more severe strain than last year.

Dr. Gary Green of the Kaiser Santa Rosa Medical center, says the area is already seeing cases of flu, an earlier start for the season than normal. 

Not only has the season started earlier, but this particular strain of flu, strain A — also known as H3N2, will be more severe, which can pose a greater threat to the elderly, young and those with certain medical conditions, such as chronic heart disease if infected. 

“We’re actually seeing cases a little bit early, it is starting early but it may ratchet up,” Green said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in this week’s flu summary, reports show that the spread of flu continues to increase all across the country. “The proportion of people seeing their health care provider for influenza-like-illness increased sharply from last week and has been at or above the national baseline for three weeks so far this season… Twelve states reported widespread flu activity, 26 states reported regional flu activity and 10 states reported local influenza activity,” the report states.

The flu can also spread more rapidly early on in the season since there is usually a high volume of people coming in contact with each other for the holiday months, which can easily spread a virus far and wide.

“We’re seeing this rise because there are more people traveling for the holidays and gathering in airports, subways, train stations etc.,” Green said. “The social phenomenon is going to compound flu season.”

When asked if there is a number of reported cases for Sonoma County so far, Scott Alonso, communications manager for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services said there is no exact count as of yet, but like Green, said the county has seen early cases of the virus.

However, with the flu virus coming in a variety of strains, it is known that this year’s season will be a tough one and can “hit you like a brick,” Green says.

“A will be more severe of a strain than B and it is hard for patients to distinguish between them. And if you are really young or really old or have medical problems like chronic heart disease, lung disease, or have HIV or are getting cancer treatments, are more at risk (for the flu to dangerously affect you),” Green explained.

Green also says one of the reasons this year’s season will be difficult is due to this season’s flu vaccine and its certain degree of ineffectiveness. During the creation of the vaccine cultures, the A strain of the flu suddenly changed.

“The A part of the vaccine is only a 10 percent match (to how the strain actually turned out). It (the strain) shifted during the manufacturing of it,” Green said.” Essentially, the vaccine may not be as effective since it doesn’t match the A strain as it altered so suddenly during the creation of the vaccine. However, it will still be effective in helping to prevent the B strain of flu.

We can also look towards Australia’s last flu season that occurred during our last summer, to further get a glimpse at what this winter’s flu season could bring since Australia’s season had the same vaccine available to its residents. As reported in an article by NBC News, “In Summer of 2017 (which is when Australia’s winter takes place), the flu was diagnosed in more Australians than the previous season — 168,337 versus 91,000 — with H3N2 predominant.” And during this increased season, the vaccine was only 10 percent effective.

So is it still important to get vaccinated? Yes, Green said when asked. “It is still important to get it because it will protect you against B and not only does it help yourself, but helps those who may come in contact with you,” Green advised.

He also noted that it is very important to frequently wash your hands and to not touch your face, since “If you come in contact with the flu then touch your face you can inoculate yourself,” Green said.

The CDC recommends that when washing your hands, you follow five main steps before eating or preparing food, coughing or sneezing, using the bathroom, touching garbage or an animal, changing a diaper or dealing with anyone who is sick.  

“Wet your hands with clean running water, lather your hands by rubbing them together with soap, scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds, rinse your hands well under clean running water and dry your hands using a clean towel,” the CDC writes.

Yet, sometimes if you get an unpleasant bug it can be hard to tell the difference between a cold and flu. However, this time around since the strain is more relentless, Green said you will definitely know that you have been hit with flu.

“You’ll have a very high fever and you can be achy and quickly develop a cough and it could put you in bed,” Green said. Whereas with a cold you can get a, “Low-grade fever and have it start with congestion and you may feel achy in the morning and then better later on in the evening.”

If you are unfortunate enough to be hit with the flu Green stressed that it is important to stay hydrated in order to replace lost fluids and electrolytes and to try to eat something simple like broth to replace lost calories. 

“Talk to a doctor as well, because flu medication can help shorten it if taken in the first 24-48 hours,” he said.

Flu vaccinations are also still being provided at local medical centers such as the Rohnert Park Medical Center on Wednesday’s from 3-5 p.m. To find a Kaiser Center that is closest to you where you can get vaccinated, visit health.kaiserpermanente.org.