Flu season hitting hard, especially in suburban schools
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
Chicago Tribune by Patrick M. O'Connell
The reports from school districts have rolled in daily to Chicago-area health departments, and the graphs on the weekly influenza charts are soaring upward. Flu season has arrived, earlier than usual and packing a punch that has sent hundreds of students and teachers home with fever, chills and vomiting.
After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that this year's influenza vaccine was less effective, health officials in Illinois worried flu season would be long and severe. It appears the concern was well-founded.
Flu cases are on the rise across the city and suburbs, especially among school-age children. The Cook County Department of Public Health received 15 reports last week from schools with clusters of students with influenzalike illnesses. On Monday alone, the department received 11 such school reports.
Illinois trails only Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia with the breadth of flu activity, according to the CDC's measures. Most cases, health officials said, have not required hospitalization.
In Chicago, two influenza-related deaths have been reported since the season began.
"It's widespread and it's severe," said Michael Vernon, the county Department of Public Health's director of communicable disease control and prevention. "There's widespread transmission among the young, and it's making the elderly sicker."
Nearly 600 students and staff in Oak Park Elementary District 97 schools were absent Monday because of illness, district officials said. Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park canceled two days of classes last week after about one-quarter of the student body became sick with flu-like symptoms.
Chicago Public Schools said a few schools have seen increases in student absences for the flu.
"We're sort of in the thick of it right now," said Margaret Provost-Fyfe, health director for the village of Oak Park. "We may have a ways to go yet."
Long-term care facilities for the elderly also have been experiencing an uptick in clustered flu cases in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties, health officials said. The elderly, pregnant women and infants are particularly vulnerable.
Four of the eight clusters of influenzalike illness at long-term care facilities in suburban Cook County were reported during the week ending Dec. 6, according to the Cook County health department. Since the end of August, suburban Cook County has had 10 clusters of influenzalike illness at schools and 73 hospitalizations.
Students are more susceptible to the flu because viruses spread faster when kids — who often wash their hands less and touch each other more than adults — share classrooms, desks, tables, gyms and seats in the cafeteria, health officials said. Teens usually recover quickly and often avoid the more serious complications that can hit other age groups, especially the elderly and those with existing health issues.
Dr. Julie Morita, chief medical officer of the Chicago Department of Public Health, said flu cases are climbing in the city and the influenza A H3N2 strain is responsible for most of the sickness. The CDC said the H3N2 strain has mutated slightly, which has made the vaccine less effective in preventing it.
Flu levels also are on the rise in DuPage and Lake counties.
"Certainly what's worrisome for us is that we're seeing activity earlier than we usually see it," said Victor Plotkin, epidemiologist with the Lake County Health Department. He added that the drifting of the H3N2 virus away from the composition of the vaccine may be contributing to the increased flu levels.
Public health officials continue to urge people to get the flu vaccine. They say even a less effective immunization offers protection and can lessen the severity and duration of symptoms.
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