Flu battering Lehigh County
Mar 15, 2013 (The Morning Call (Allentown - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
The flu bug has been hitting Pennsylvania hard this season and Lehigh County is taking a big part of the blow, state reports show.
Pennsylvania has racked up nearly 38,600 laboratory-confirmed cases since the season began in October and more than 3,000 of them have been in Lehigh County, according to state Department of Health records.
Only Allegheny County, with 3,120 cases, has had more lab-confirmed cases as of Saturday, records show. Northampton County has recorded 1,552 laboratory-confirmed cases.
Why Lehigh County is so high on the list is not clear, said Dr. Luther Rhodes, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Lehigh Valley Health Network. It could be that the Valley, served by large health networks like LVH and St. Luke's University Health Network as well as community hospitals, has more samples sent to laboratories for confirmation of the flu virus, he said. Laboratory-confirmed cases are only a small part of the actual burden of flu across Pennsylvania. Federal health officials estimate that between 600,000 and 1.3 million Pennsylvanians get the flu each year.
Vicki Kistler, director of the Allentown Health Bureau, noted that while the flu was peaking in the region, noroviruses and other bugs were surging too. Doctors here aggressively sought laboratory diagnoses of their patients' specimens so they could be treated properly, Kistler said.
The severity of this season's flu has been remarkable, Rhodes said. So far, 174 people in Pennsylvania have died from flu-related complications, including David Mueller, a 31-year-old nursing student from North Whitehall Township. For the entire 2011-12 flu season, only 11 deaths were officially related to complications from the flu.
Flu-related deaths were more evenly spread across the state, with Philadelphia and Allegheny counties, the most populous counties, reporting the most deaths at 19 and 18, respectively.
Rhodes also said that with a harsh flu season, LVH made a timely decision to mandate flu vaccines for eligible employees. "This was not an easy thing to do," Rhodes said, "but of all the years for that to go into effect, I think it was validated."
Because the flu is still lingering -- and it's hitting the mid-Atlantic region harder than other parts of the country -- Rhodes said it's still wise for people to get a flu shot if they have not gotten one.
"It's good that it's not out of control," Rhodes said of the flu, "but it's still very much a busy season."
The flu vaccine is proving to be slightly less effective this season compared with previous seasons, noted Terry Burger, Lehigh Valley Health Network's director of infection control and prevention. But even at around 60 percent effectiveness, "those are good odds when you're talking about death," she said.
She also said the tents LVH set up to ease pressure on the emergency department only recently were dismantled. According to Burger, during the height of the flu season, LVH saw 30 to 40 additional patients a day.
While this season's flu persists, health officials already have laid out plans for next flu season. Next year, Rhodes said, the flu vaccine will provide protection against two strains of Type A and two strains of Type B flu. This year's vaccine covered two Type A strains but only one strain of Type B, he said.
In addition, senior citizens will have a stronger vaccination next season. For those 65 and older, their next flu shot will be the high-dose vaccine that's four times as potent as the standard vaccine. Preliminary studies showed that the vaccine this season has had only a 9 percent effectiveness rate for seniors against the strongest strains of flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
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