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Flu has serious local impact

Vaccines are in short supply

By Katie Demeria

This year's strain of flu is impacting young, healthy individuals more than it is the very old or very young, according to the Center for Disease Control.

The number of deaths caused by the H1N1 strain has been steadily increasing, and according to Dr. Nick Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs with Winchester Medical Center, the Shenandoah Valley has been severely impacted.

"There are two big issues with this strain," Restrepo said. "The prevalence of it, that a lot of people are getting the flu, and very importantly, the fact that some people are getting very, very sick."

"We've had several fatalities in our area directly as a result of the flu," he continued.

Valley Health implemented restricted visiting hours earlier this year in order to protect patients and staff, Restrepo said. Those restrictions are likely to continue into March and April.

This year's flu is similar to the H1N1 strain that also impacted younger, healthy individuals in 2009. According to a CDC news release, "People age 18-64 represented 61 percent of all hospitalizations from influenza."

In the last three years, those aged 18 to 64 only represented 35 percent of influenza hospitalizations, the release continued.

"This is a very severe strain, and the unusual aspect of it is that young people are getting real sick," Restrepo said. "We have people in their 20s and 30s requiring the most extreme life support we can provide."

The flu, Restrepo warned, is oftentimes contagious before individuals show symptoms.

"That's the reason we limit people from visiting," he said. "Saying, 'oh I feel fine now,' is one thing, but tomorrow you might not be fine, and today you're contagious."

The most useful way individuals can protect themselves from getting the flu is through vaccination, he said. Vaccination is also the best way to prevent influenza from spreading.

"It is not too late to get vaccinated," he said. "Ideally it would have been done a while ago, but at this point it you haven't been vaccinated, it will still be a very good idea to go ahead and get it."

Vaccinations, though, are not quite as available as they were at the beginning of the season.

Tim Weaver, nurse manager with Front Royal Family Practice, said the practice is extremely low on vaccines.

"As a matter of fact, we may be entirely out now," he said. "We've been referring people to the health department."

According to the CDC's news release, those who have already been vaccinated should be well protected against this year's strain. The vaccine reduces an individual's likelihood of hospitalization from the flu by 60 percent.

For those who do not have access to vaccination, Restrepo said frequent hand washing with soap and water should lower their risk as well.

"When you're out and about, you're touching surfaces at fast food restaurants or banks, and then you touch your eyes -- that's how you get the flu," he said. "Frequent hand washing with soap and water is a great method of prevention."

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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