Flu season has started early, and it's looking like a bad one

Twice the normal number of fatalities possible

Texas, Colorado hit hard

December 05, 2003|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

This winter's flu season is starting early, and experts expect it to be one of the most severe in recent years, with possibly twice the normal number of fatalities.

Colorado and Texas have borne the brunt of the outbreak so far, with Colorado already reporting 6,306 confirmed cases as of yesterday, nearly three times the number incurred during the entire flu season last year.

At least seven Colorado children ranging in age from 21 months to 15 years have died so far. Normally, only two die during a typical flu season.

In Texas, at least three children and an adult have died of flu-related illnesses, as have three nursing home residents in Washington state. In New Mexico, three children and an adult died from the disease over Thanksgiving weekend.

Seven other states - Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Arkansas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania - have reported widespread flu activity, according to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We've rarely seen a year where we've seen so many states reporting so much activity this early in the season," said CDC's Nancy Cox.

The influenza season normally runs from December through March, with about 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans catching it, an average of about 114,000 being hospitalized with flu-related illnesses and 36,000 dying - a death toll that could rise to more than 70,000 this year, according to the CDC.

Those at greatest risk of death are the very young, the elderly and those with underlying health problems that make them more susceptible to the effects of an infection.

The culprit in this year's increased activity is an influenza "A" strain called Fujian H3N2 that emerged after manufacturers began preparing this winter's 83 million doses of vaccine.

"It's an aggressive strain that causes more cases and more severe cases," said Dr. Flor M. Munoz, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Baylor Flu Clinic in Houston. "It's making people sicker and more likely to die."

Although the Fujian strain is not included in the vaccine, it is closely related to the Panama H3N2 strain that is used, and the vaccine should provide at least partial protection, according to the CDC.

Texas was the first state to see the effects this year.

Tissues are disappearing so rapidly from teacher Irma Natoli's desk that she's resorted to handing out paper towels to sniffling seventh- and eighth-graders struggling with flu symptoms.

"We've gone through boxes of them," said Natoli, who teaches at Morningside International Academy, a Fort Worth school for sixth- through eighth-graders. "They are constantly going to the bathroom for toilet paper and to wash their hands."

Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Health, said this is the seventh week that the outbreak has been characterized as widespread, the highest level of activity. "The levels we're seeing in October and early November were levels we usually see in December and January, during the height of the flu season," he said.

Dallas County has already reported more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the disease.

Exactly why Colorado's cases are so high continues to baffle doctors.

"There is no special reason why Colorado should be hit so hard; it was just bad luck," said Dr. Eric France, chief of preventive medicine for Kaiser Permanente in Colorado. "What we are seeing here is a preview of what is going to happen nationwide."

In some Colorado schools, nearly half of the students are out sick. Supermarkets are now setting aside space for people to get flu shots, which take about two weeks to be effective.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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