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Flu at near ‘epidemic’ levels

Reports of flu-like sickness and related hospitalizations have surged toward peak levels in Ohio and other parts of the nation in recent weeks and might have resulted in at least one area death, health officials said.

More than half the states in the country, including Ohio, are experiencing high levels of flu activity weeks ahead of the pace of a typical flu season, according to the latest flu report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a disproportionate number of those cases are resulting in hospitalization.

“We actually are in the throes of an epidemic,” said Catherine Bacheller, director of infectious disease prevention at Kettering Medical Center. “In our hospital, we’ve doubled the number of cases each week for the past couple of weeks.”

In Ohio, flu-related hospitalizations climbed to 1,230 from early October through the final week of December 2012, according to the Ohio Department of Health. That compares to 71 hospitalizations in the same period in 2011, although officials are quick to point out that the last flu season was one of the mildest on record.

This year, however, area hospitals are scrambling to keep pace with flu-related emergency room visits and admissions.

The flu season can last from October through April, but cases typically don’t begin to peak until January or February, said Bill Wharton of Public Health — Dayton & Montgomery County.

“The numbers are up quite a bit so far this year, and it’s happening much earlier than what we’ve had in the past,” according to Wharton, who said flu-related hospitalizations in Montgomery County doubled last week to 14 from seven in the previous week.

Statewide, there were 368 hospitalizations last week — more than three times the number of hospitalizations during the first two months of the season.

Still, most of the flu activity in the state was concentrated in the Northeast and East Central regions, which combined for 225 hospitalizations last week, or 61 percent of the total.

There were only 17 hospitalizations in Southwest Ohio last week, including the 14 in Montgomery County.

In Warren County, an unidentified elderly man who tested positive for influenza died over the weekend, but he also suffered from several other chronic “co-morbid conditions” that could have caused his death. And health officials there haven’t determined the cause of death.

Overall, Warren County has reported 15 flu-related hospitalizations, which hospital officials described as “slightly elevated but close to normal” for this time of year.

In Middletown, hospitalizations are rare, but doctors are seeing an increasing number of people with flu-like symptoms, said Jackie Phillips, health commissioner at Middletown City Health Department.

“We have seen more influenza than we have in the past year, but nothing alarming,” Phillips said. “There’s a lot of junk out there, whether it’s the flu or some other virus. Almost everybody I know has been sick with something. But our ERs (emergency rooms) haven’t been slammed. And there aren’t a lot of people missing school or work.”

That could change quickly, though, because the flu is unpredictable, said Dr. Mary DiOrio, epidemiologist for the state health department. And the dominant strain in Ohio this year — the H3N2 virus — has the potential to hit hard and spread quickly, she said.

“We’re seeing different viruses circulating, and the predominant virus that is circulating right now in Ohio does correlate to a lot of hospitalizations because those viruses tend to cause a bit more severe illness,” DiOrio said.

She said the best protection is a flu vaccine.

“The good news about the vaccine this year is that so far, the vaccine is a good match for the viruses we are seeing in the population,” DiOrio said. “That’s why it’s really important for people to go out and get vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.”

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