The Arkansas Department of Health is warning residents about a significant influenza outbreak and how best to prepare.
“In a bad flu year, it's estimated a third of the population gets the flu," says Dr. Dirk Haselow, state epidemiologist who is tracking outbreak response. "In Arkansas that would be a million people."
This influenza season, which began in early December and ends in late March, intensified over the holiday season and is shaping up to be a bad one, Haselow says.
"We are now at a level of flu that was higher than we’ve seen in the last five years. And it appears to be going up."
The virus, he says, first affected densely populated regions including Benton, Pulaski, and Sebastian Counties, but over the past month has spread across the state.
“Already we’ve had 14,000 reports of flu and that doesn't count huge stacks of paper reports that we have not gotten to at this point in time.”
Confirmed flu cases are provided by local clinicians, as well as ERs, hospitals, urgent care centers, insurance agencies, and public schools. The weekly reported totals posted by the Arkansas Department of Health do not reflect the total influenza burden in the state, due to case processing backlogs. Plus not all individuals sickened by the flu seek medical help so remain invisible to statisticians.
The state however is able to confirm 28 influenza-related deaths so far, among persons 45 and older. No children have died, yet.
“We historically see more deaths in the latter half of the flu season than the beginning and so this, if I had my crystal ball, is a very bad sign," he says. "The numbers that we put out other than deaths, and hospitalizations are likely a dramatic underestimate of what’s really going on."
Haselow recommends all Arkansans get a flu shot, but says the vaccine provides only a measure of protection.
“The problem is, compared to vaccines that we give in early childhood, the flu vaccine is not quite as effective. For example the measles vaccine after two doses is 99% effective. The flu vaccine is 50 to 60% effective.”
Haselow says, however, the flu vaccine is 70% effective in preventing hospitalizations among seniors, and 80% in preventing death, especially among children, as reported last year, in the journal Pediatrics.
Flu vaccines are available through medical providers, pharmacies (bring proof of medical insurance and photo ID) or by appointment at one of 75 Arkansas Department of health county clinics across the state. Haselow says public mass vaccine clinics wrapped up before Christmas but there’s plenty of vaccine left to go around.
Prescription antiviral drugs may ease symptoms and duration, and should be a priority treatment option especially for children and elders who are at high risk of serious flu complications, he says, like pneumonia. Antibiotics are only useful in treating bacterial co-infections stemming from the flu.
As for the recent cold snap in Arkansas, temperatures don’t phase flu bugs, which can linger in the air and on hard surfaces spread by infected individuals who are coughing and sneezing.
"The flu virus is tolerant of the cold," Haselow says, "it can live on cold surfaces for days, so it’s important to wash your hands, if you are touching door knobs and ATM machines. Wash and sanitize your hands regularly now for flu as well as for any other viral infections you see in winter.”
The virus attaches to nasal passages and throats of healthy individuals, moving into respiratory tracts. Compared to the common cold, classic flu symptoms may include fever, chills, body aches, headache, sore throat, cough, fatigue, as well as nasal congestion. Dr. Haselow advises anyone who develops key symptoms to stay home.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that the flu virus, which incubated in handful states over December, including Arkansas, is now widespread in 36 states.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.