Hard to believe, but this is an average flu season Fewer are ailing than last year, officials say

January 24, 1998|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Liz Bowie, Howard Libit, Jackie Powder and Elaine Tassy contributed to this article.

Though it will come as small comfort to anyone who is coughing, wheezing and sweating out a fever, health officials say the flu season of 1997-1998 is not shaping up to be a severe one.

For those with ailing children parked in front of television sets, this winter may seem one of the worst in memory. But doctors and epidemiologists who track disease trends say the flu season has been about average and far less severe than last year's.

"It hasn't been terrible, not anything like last year, which hit early, hit real hard and then was gone," said Dale Rohn, chief of communicable disease surveillance for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

There are more empty seats in classrooms than in warmer months, but nothing unexpected. Only one public school in Baltimore County, for instance, reported student absences exceeding 10 percent.

Thursday, 52 children at the 500-student Sussex Elementary in Essex were absent, said Principal Ann Eicholtz. "It's wintertime, and children get sick," she said.

Harriett Kravetz, assistant principal at Pimlico Elementary School Baltimore, said the school's teachers have been sicker than the children. Their complaints have included stomach viruses and runny noses and stuffy heads.

As usual, she said, the first grade has been hit hardest. "It is thefirst year at school, and they pick up everything," Kravetz said.

The state health department has recorded 32 outbreaks of flulike illnesses in Maryland this season, down from 65 at the same time last year, Rohn said. Influenza has been confirmed in eight of the outbreaks. The remainder have not been fully analyzed or are presumed to be other viral illnesses that mimic the flu.

Most of the reported outbreaks have occurred in nursing homes, where patients are vulnerable because they live in close quarters and have weakened immune systems.

Because doctors are not required to report flu cases -- in contrast to diseases such as meningitis, measles and tuberculosis -- the health department assumes that its figures account for a small fraction of the cases. Nonetheless, they provide a good way to compare one year's cases with those of another.

Another encouraging trend is that this year's flu cases appear to be type A, a broad category that can be treated or prevented with the antiviral drugs amantadine or rimantadine, Rohn said. Those drugs are usually given to the elderly or others who are at high risk for serious complications.

Authorities here are not sure whether the Sydney virus, a type A strain that was brought into the United States by cruise ship passengers, has made its way to Maryland. The answer will come from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where scientists are looking at specimens.

The Sydney virus is significant in one respect: It appeared too late for pharmaceutical companies to include protective agents in the vaccine that was prepared for the current flu season.

But Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the vaccine might offer some protection against Sydney by reducing its symptoms if not preventing it. Sydney has been confirmed in California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, Texas and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, the avian flu that has killed several people in Hong Kong has not been identified in the United States. Authorities think all human cases of "bird flu" occurred among people who had contact with infected chickens, and they have yet to document a case in which the disease has passed from one person to another.

In Maryland, pediatricians are far busier now than they are in the spring or summer months, but they generally agree that they zTC have seen worse seasons than this.

"I think it's a routine season, nothing extraordinary," said Dr. Arnold Sigler, a Lutherville pediatrician.

As is typical, children showing up with fever, coughs and sore throats are not all afflicted with influenza. Some have respiratory syncytial virus, which can cause severe wheezing in infants and laryngitis in adults. Some have adenovirus, which can trigger diarrhea and vomiting, along with swollen glands and respiratory ills.

"Flu starts with the highest-level symptoms right away, then decreases in intensity," said Dr. Alan Davick, a Lutherville pediatrician. "Fever, red eyes, severe pain, headaches, muscle aches, all things like that. Then a cough, and the temperature comes down. The painful part goes away, and the cough is what persists."

The initial temperature can be as high as 103 or 104. Pediatricians usually recommend that patients drink lots of fluids and take over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen to reduce fever. The illness can last up to 10 days.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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