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Posted January 10, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Viruses straining health system

Area officials recommend vaccination

By Sally Voth

As influenza sweeps through the nation and the Shenandoah Valley, the flu vaccine and early treatment remain the best defense, area health care officials warn.

Dr. Charles Devine, Lord Fairfax Health District director, said this week is the fourth week of numerous reports of patients presenting with flu-like symptoms.

"We've seen an increase in the numbers of cases this week vis-à-vis last week," he said. "Across the state, we're still seeing widespread activity."

For the past two weeks, 7 percent of patients presenting at emergency rooms and reporting doctors' offices in the northwest part of Virginia had flu-like symptoms, Devine said.

"Right now, the activity across the country is approaching the moderately severe peak that we saw in the 2007-2008 season, which was a moderately severe season, but it's not yet so severe as in the 2009-2010 pandemic year," he said.

The latter was the H1N1 pandemic, referred to as swine flu.

Since that outbreak, it's become pretty routine to see signs at medical facilities asking anyone with a cough, cold and fever to not visit, Devine noted.

Influenza isn't the whole problem.

Dr. Jack Potter is the medical director for Winchester Medical Center's emergency department and the director for emergency services at Valley Health. He said the high number of influenza cases has coincided with an uptick in other routine illnesses -- RSV, which can be very severe in infants, numerous other viruses and a bad gastrointestinal virus.

"We're at a point now we're not actually screening people to physically make the [flu] diagnosis," Potter said.

Those presenting with flu-like symptoms are assumed to have the flu and being treated as such.

"It's really the confluence [of numerous viruses]," Potter said. "All these things happened at the same time. That has really been the challenge for us in ERs, really across the region.

"The hospital has been running at capacity -- over capacity, really -- for several weeks in a row now. Last week, in particular, was truly challenging. There were no beds available in the hospital. We had a number of people held in the emergency department for more than 24 hours. We will probably run at capacity for a while yet."

The situation is the same at Warren Memorial Hospital and Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, according to Potter.

He said he fears there could be more influenza cases to come.

"Frankly, we're kind of bracing ourselves as all the children go back to school after the holidays, that this is going to be another breeding ground for passing this virus around," Potter said.

He said he thinks this season's flu vaccine has been pretty effective.

If taken early enough, the anti-viral Tamiflu can reduce the severity of flu symptoms and the length of time a person is sick, according to Devine.

"If you have a fever and cough and congestion and muscle aches and pains and feel like you've been run down by a truck...it would be appropriate to contact your doctor," Devine said. "It's appropriate if you're sick to stay home, not go to work, not go out into public because you don't want to give it to other people."

He, too, said the flu vaccine is a good match for this year's flu strains.

"We would expect the vaccine to offer pretty good protection this year, and it's not too late to get vaccinated," Devine said. "The vaccine is by no means perfect. It is, though, the best thing that we have to prevent flu."

And, even if someone who has been vaccinated gets influenza, that person likely will get a less severe case, he said.

Getting vaccinated is also part of being a good citizen. Those who do contribute to "herd immunity," Devine said.

"Any vaccine-preventable disease, the more people you can have vaccinated...the less easily the disease is spread through the community," he said. "So, a high level of herd immunity is a good thing."

Potter also advised good hand washing, staying clear of those with flu symptoms, getting plenty of rest and staying hydrated.

Contact staff writer Sally Voth at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or svoth@nvdaily.com

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