The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) is encouraging people to stay home when they are ill to slow the spread of influenza.
Influenza typically peaks in Kansas in February, but according to KDHE Secretary Dr. Robert Moser, the rates health officials are observing now are higher and earlier than normal.
KDHE monitors the percentage of patients seeking healthcare for influenza-like illness (ILI) at selected outpatient clinics through a system known as ILINet.
Last week, the rate of ILI among patients seeking care was approximately 6.4 percent. Last year, that rate peaked at 3.4 percent during the week ending March, 10, 2012. It was the latest peak of an influenza season in Kansas since monitoring began in 1995.
Google’s Flu Trend indicator, which has proven to be a reliable indicator of outbreaks, shows intense flu outbreaks in all but seven mainland states in the U.S. It also shows higher flu activity than at any point in the last six years.
Nancy Tausz, disease containment division director for Johnson County, said flu is not reportable in Kansas, but the county tracks trends. The county health department receives informal updates from school nurses and medical professionals.
“We have started the season much earlier than in the last couple of years,” Tausz said. “In the last two or three weeks, we have seen a significant increase in Johnson County.”
Symptoms of influenza include fever, dry cough, extreme tiredness and muscle aches. Complications can include pneumonia, ear and sinus infections, and dehydration; influenza may also worsen other chronic conditions.
KDHE closes monitors influenza-related deaths. During the last flu season, influenza and pneumonia contributed to or directly caused more than 1,300 deaths in Kansas. This season, state officials report more than 460 influenza and pneumonia deaths to date.
Although the numbers of those infected has spiked, Tausz and Moser say that doesn’t mean the season has peaked.
“Let’s not forget that influenza is unpredictable and can continue to circulate through spring,” Moser said.
“You just never know what is going to happen. This year there’s just a lot of cases earlier than we’ve seen,” Tausz said. “It could go on and continue high for another month or it could stop next week. Flu usually will peak end of January into February. This is an earlier peak. Whether it continues to peak, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
She said the best preventative measure against influenza is getting a flu shot.
“You can get vaccinated all the way into May or June,” she said. “You’re not only protecting yourself, but those around you – either those who are too young to get vaccinated or those with weakened immunities.”
Influenza vaccine is recommended for nearly everyone six months of age and older to reduce the risk of becoming ill with the flu and reduce the risk of spreading the flu to others. This is especially important for anyone at high risk of complications, and for anyone who is caring for, or in regular contact with, an infant less than six months of age. Babies this age are too young to be vaccinated and are more vulnerable to the complications from influenza.
In addition to the flu vaccine, Tausz recommends that people wash their hands with soap and water and staying home when ill.