Flu epidemic: By the numbers

8:08 PM, Jan 10, 2013   |    comments
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CLEVELAND -- When you spend every day buried in influenza data like researcher Richard Stacklin, you're likely to bring some of the info home.

"First everybody had to get a flu shot, that was a mandate. As well as making sure you wash your hands for 15 to 20 seconds. Make sure you scrub them," said Stacklin.

Stacklin works in Epidemiology and Surveillance at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, measuring metrics for when you visit the doctor or hospital with flu-like symptoms, how many kids miss school or even the flu medicine or thermometers you buy at the pharmacy.

The pattern, cause and effect tracking helps the medical community plan for future outbreaks, and even determines what strains of flu end up in each year's vaccine.

"It paints the whole picture. If we only have one data source, we understand something maybe going on for flu related hospitalizations, but what's going on in the schools? Are the younger people getting sick?" said Stacklin.

This year, the most telling statistic: the number of ER visits for every age group keeps growing.

"The peak flu period can go ten to twelve weeks, and we've been starting the peak for the last four weeks," he said.

After a very unusual early start, Stacklin says expect two more months of misery. This year's most common strain H3N2, has also proved deadliest over the past 35 years.

The good news? The vaccine, which doctors say you still have time to get, is a perfect match.

"The CDC reported that over 90 percent, nine out of ten people that had a confirmed influenza related illness, that was hospitalized, could have been prevented if they had gotten the flu shot," said Stacklin.

And doctors say, if you get the vaccine and still manage to get sick, your illness will be milder and shorter.

Why such an early flu season? It's hard to say. But the uptick in timing occurred just before the holidays.

While people traveled around from work to relatives, they also carried the virus, spreading it person to person. Those families who managed to stay healthy could now be exposed as kids go back to school, and adults back to work.

Weather can play a role, too, as the influenza virus is airborne, and travels best in cold, dry air.


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