Experts say flu cases waning
BY CINDY STAUFFER, Staff Writer
Four more people have died from the flu in Lancaster County, bringing the death toll here to seven so far this season.
The deaths, however, come as the flu season has started to wane in the county and state, in a year of intense flu when the vaccine had a 62 percent effective rate.
From Jan 20 through Jan. 26, according to the state Department of Health, the state had 3,683 confirmed flu cases, down from 6,068 the week before (the previous week's total has been adjusted upward because of delayed reporting). The county now has 1,402 flu cases to date.
"I would say over the last week, it's significantly reduced," said Marla Konas, infection control nurse for Lancaster Regional and Heart of Lancaster Regional Medical Centers. "From talking to staff and people in the community, it seemed like it was all the last two weeks in December and the first two weeks in January. It seems to be tapering off now."
At Lancaster General Hospital, the staff tracks people who come into the emergency room with flu-like illnesses. That percentage has dropped from 10 percent in early January to 5 percent, said Dr. Joseph Kontra, infectious disease specialist and director of the microbiology laboratory.
Also, the percentage of people who actually test positive for the flu has dropped from 35 percent to 20 percent, he said.
Health officials repeat that it is not too late to get a flu vaccine, even in a year when that vaccine was 62 percent effective, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That rate does not approach the effectiveness of vaccines against childhood diseases such as polio (99 percent, after three doses) and vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella (99.7 percent, after two doses).
But the vaccine actually was pretty good this year, as the flu vaccine goes, and work is under way to make it more effective, a federal health official said.
"In years where it's well-matched (to the prevalent strains), its going to be around 60 percent," said Curtis Allen, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "In years where its not as well-matched, it's going to be below that."
In the two previous flu seasons, the vaccine was about 60 percent effective, Allen said.
"Sixty percent is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination," Allen said. "We would hope it would be in 90 to 95 percent ranges, but at this time the 60 percent is what we have."
Research is being done to develop a one-time vaccine that would be highly effective, Allen said, but noted that type of flu vaccine is in the future.
But other advances are coming.
Next year's flu vaccine will be effective against four strains of the flu for the first time. The vaccine traditionally has protected against three strains, based on what health officials believe will be the most prevalent ones.
Elderly people, whose immune systems are weakest and who are at the most risk from the flu, could get a more potent vaccine this year. However, Kontra said that vaccine does not offer any higher protection and caused more side effects, so many doctors were choosing not to use it.
Researchers are examining whether the elderly could get a vaccine early in the season, followed by a second booster, to boost their immunity, he said. But that has not yet been determined.
This year's vaccine didn't protect everyone who got it. In fact, Konas' own husband, Tom, got the vaccine and still got the flu, but his symptoms were less severe than if he had not been vaccinated, she said.
But Kontra said that nobody got sick from the vaccine itself, which is a popular misconception.
It's possible someone got the flu vaccine and then became ill with another respiratory illness, but that had nothing to do with the flu vaccine, he said.
Get the vaccine because not only can it protect you, it protects vulnerable people you come into contact with, such as the elderly, those under the age of 6 months or people with weakened immune systems, Allen said