By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Reports of widespread flu outbreaks on the mainland are prompting more people in Hawaii to get their vaccinations, say pharmacists and the state’s epidemiologist.
The flu this season has been reported from the Rocky Mountains to New England, and though the early season numbers look bad compared to last year’s relatively mild outbreak, it’s difficult to predict how bad it will get by the end of the season this spring, doctors say.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 41 states had widespread influenza activity, and 29 states and New York City had high influenza-like illness activity in the week ending Dec. 29. Although not unprecedented, that level of activity is not usually seen until later in the season.
Flu usually doesn’t blanket the country until late January or February. Yet the major strain of flu virus this year so far is making people sicker than in past years, the Associated Press reported Thursday. There are also spikes in other viral diseases, which complicates flu reporting, “including a childhood malady that mimics flu and a new norovirus that causes what some people call “stomach flu.” Spikes in these illnesses have coincided with the advent of the flu season.
Most people don’t undergo lab tests to confirm flu, and the symptoms are so similar that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish flu from other viruses, or even a cold. Over the holidays, 250 people were sickened at a Mormon missionary training center in Utah, but the culprit turned out to be a norovirus, not the flu. Still, there’s no doubt that the flu is causing many of the nation’s newest health problems.
In Hawaii, flu cases are likely to increase as the peak season approaches, but currently the incidents are about the same as in recent past years, said state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Park. Park said to keep in mind, however, that the last few years have been “not too bad,” especially since a school-based vaccination program began in 2007.
“Between the school program, people being more aware, taking precautions, trying to be more careful and getting their flu shots, maybe that will keep us from getting to the point where the mainland is now,” she said. “Knock on wood, not yet, not now, hopefully not ever,” Park said.
At Hilo’s Shiigi Drugs, flu shots are getting more popular since news of the mainland outbreaks started making headlines.”We had a few more calls today,” said Melvin Chow, pharmacist in charge of immunizations.
Significantly, a few local physicians bared their biceps for flu shots over the weekend, Chow said. “I’m here every day, I can see the trend. It was slow until this past weekend.”
Michele Yonemori, also a Shiigi pharmacist, was just getting her shot on Thursday.
“I’ve been busy, just been putting it off,” she said. “But we’ve been hearing about all the flu. It’ll probably reach here in a month or so, and Mel has been after me to get the vaccination.”
Also, Yonemori’s 19-year-old son traveled this week to Boston, where a public health emergency resulting from the flu was declared on Wednesday. On Chow’s advice, her son got his shot before leaving. “He’s afraid of needles,” Yonemori said, but she’s relieved he got the shot.
Park, however, cautioned the unvaccinated not to wait too long since it takes up to two weeks following a flu shot for the antibodies to become effective.
“It didn’t hurt and it’s really fast,” Yonemori said. “I was talking to one of the people we order from in Florida and he’s been really sick for a couple of weeks.”
Which brings up another prevention point: “If you’re sick, stay home,” Park said, since the virus spreads easily in schools and in the workplace.
There is no shortage of the flu vaccine in Hawaii and Park urges almost everyone age 6 and older and healthy to get the shot. Even those who believe they’re healthy enough to forgo the vaccination should get one anyway, she said, since they could be carrying the virus and pass it along without being aware of it. “You could pick up a virus and pass it on to others without realizing it,” she said. “Don’t be that person.”
Shiigi takes appointments and walk-ins, Chow said. The cost for the vaccination is $25, but most insurance plans cover flu shots. Longs Drugs, Walgreens, Safeway and the Foodland Pharmacy in Waimea also offer flu shots.
Hawaii’s public and private schools’ participation in the “Stop Flu in School” program has been important in stemming the spread of the flu in Hawaii, Park said. Nearly 90 percent of the schools participate in the program, which is voluntary and requires parental permission for students to get the vaccine.
“Maybe what’s going on on the mainland will be helping us,” Park said. “Hopefully the parents of these kids who haven’t been vaccinated will realize they need to get vaccinated as well. It’s not just about them. It’s about all the people around them.”
Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.
But most people with flu have a mild illness and can help themselves and protect others by staying home and resting. People with severe symptoms should see a doctor who may prescribe antiviral drugs or other medications to ease symptoms.
How bad the flu may get this season in Hawaii remains to be seen, Park said. “Cannot predict, only time will tell.”
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.