Flu death raises concerns

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The first death in Arkansas of the 2012-13 flu season was reported to the Arkansas Department of Health last week. The Health Department does not disclose any other information about the death because of privacy concerns.

According to Nate Smith, MD, deputy director at the Arkansas Department of Health, this report serves as a reminder that the flu can be deadly.

"The flu is something that we always take very seriously," Smith said. "For some people, the complications that develop are life-threatening. This year's season has gotten started earlier than usual and the number of illnesses in the state is rapidly increasing. We want people to know that the flu is going around, and the CDC expects this flu season to be particularly severe."

Though rumors spread last week of a Blytheville Kindergarten student who died of the flu, Blytheville Superintendent Richard Atwill said this has not been confirmed. However, he said the district has already contracted a "terminal cleaning" with its cleaning service, GCA.

"Basically, any surface that could be wiped down and sterilized was," Atwill said.

Those most at risk for contracting severe influenza are pregnant women, people with chronic conditions like heart disease, those who have weakened immune systems, those over 65 and those with respiratory problems like asthma and COPD.

Great River Medical Center director of clinical support Connie Ash said Mississippi County is seeing the flu season hit a little earlier than usual, with clinics and doctors offices seeing an influx in patients testing positive for Influenza A.

While there is no guaranteed way to avoid getting the flu, Ash said there are things people can do to reduce there chances.

"The biggest things are washing your hands, the 'cover and cough' and staying away from people who are showing signs of the flu," Ash said.

She also advises people to get immunized. This year's vaccine contains protection against the particular kinds of flu that are being seen in doctor's offices in Arkansas.

The flu vaccine takes 10 to 14 days to become effective, and it is not too late to get vaccinated. Flu shots are being offered in every local health unit in the state, private physicians' offices, pharmacies, major retail and other places around the state according to the ADH.

Dirk Haselow, the Arkansas Department of Health's epidemiologist, said flu symptoms are often confused with other viruses.

"Many people use 'stomach flu' to describe illness with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, Haselow said. "Many different viruses, bacteria or parasites can cause these symptoms. While the flu can sometimes cause vomiting, diarrhea and nausea -- more commonly in children than adults -- these problems are rarely the main symptoms of the flu. The flu is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.

"Most healthy adults can infect others one day before symptoms develop and five to seven days after symptoms appear. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be contagious for a longer period," Haselow said.

Haselow added that the following steps can be take in your daily life to help protect from getting the flu:

-- Disinfect surfaces that are used by many people. This includes doorknobs, telephones, light switches, television tuners, computer keyboards and mouse, and any other item that are touched by more than one person.

-- Wash your hands often with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.

-- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread this way.

-- Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

-- Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep and exercise, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat healthy food.

-- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

-- If you are sick with flu-like illness, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone without the use of fever-reducing medicine.

"It's not too late to get the flu shot," emphasized Haselow. "Everyone 6 months of age or older should get the flu vaccine."

For more information, visit the ADH website at www.healthy.arkansas.gov, or www.flu.gov.

Bess Ann Pease of the Steele Enterprise contributed to this story.