Flu season reaches fever pitch in Houston
Published: Thursday, January 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, January 17, 2013 21:01
The flu season is here, and Houston has been hit especially hard. The City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services reported a spike in flu-related visits to Houston emergency rooms during the last weeks of December.
Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Kathy Barton said this year’s Houston flu season was unusual.
“The season had an early onset, and there was a dramatic increase in the number of cases,” Barton said. “In Houston, we typically see cases just beginning in December and peaking in late January.”
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’ influenza surveillance report, the percentage of influenza-like-illness cases in emergency room visits increased from 4 percent of cases to 5.5 percent of cases from the last two weeks of 2012. Of the approximately 1,800 patients in Houston reporting influenza-like-illness symptoms, the age groups most affected were 5- to 24-year-olds and 25- to 64-year-olds.
Baylor College of Medicine professor of virology and microbiology Dr. Pedro Piedra explained that three different strains of influenza exist—type A, type B and type C—and that one strain is typically circulated each flu season.
“Each strain is characterized by certain molecular components as an influenza virus,” Piedra said. “The ones that we worry about during the influenza season are type A and type B. Within type A, there are also two major subtypes: H3N2 and H1N1, which is the 2009 virus that caused the pandemic.”
Piedra said vaccine strains are usually chosen in February, long before the influenza season begins.
“The influenza vaccine strain is selected before we know what strain is going to be circulated,” Piedra said. “Fortunately, this year about 90 percent of what is out there is well-matched to the vaccine.”
Piedra said college students especially should follow recommendations to be vaccinated annually against the flu.
“If you are paying tuition and you’re not able to attend classes or take finals because of the flu, that could cost you the semester,” Piedra said. “The vaccine is inexpensive, safe and affords good protection.”
Barton agreed, noting that the vaccine was widely available and effective.
“Everyone is susceptible to influenza, so everyone needs to get a flu shot,” Barton said.
Barton also advised keeping good social hygiene practices and avoiding sick people, especially children, who are more infectious even before they display symptoms of the flu.
Director of Rice Health Services Dr. Mark Jenkins said approximately 560 students have received vaccines from Rice this academic year, more than any other year.
“We did a big push for vaccinations at the beginning of the fall semester,” Jenkins said. “It’s not too late now, but the flu has already hit campus by now, and the vaccine takes about two weeks to go into effect.”
Brown College junior Shelley Reese said Rice Health Services told her there were no available flu vaccines when she called to make an appointment last week.
“I had never gotten a flu shot before, but my dad specifically told me to make sure I got one because of all the publicity the flu was getting this year,” Reese said. “I called Health Services last week, and they said they were out. When I called again to try to make an appointment, they said they didn’t want to schedule an appointment until they knew that they would have enough shots.”
Reese said she called again this week and was able to schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine.
Jenkins said Health Services had a slight supply issue because of increased demand last week but said more vaccines had arrived as of this week.
“Our walk-in clinics were in the fall, so now we simply order more vaccines based on demand,” Jenkins said. “Generally, there is a turnover time of about two days. There is not a shortage of vaccines. It’s just that if we order too many and don’t use all of them, that’s a waste of money.”
Jenkins said flu shots cost $15 for students and that appointments can be made at Health Services. He also said students with a high risk for influenza, such as patients with asthma, could receive the vaccine for free.