Doctors see spike in season's flu cases

This year's flu season is the worst doctors have seen in five years, with one clinic reporting the number of patients seen daily up 40 percent.

Flu cases started escalating about three weeks ago at Riverview Medical Center, which has seen daily patient visits jump from about 175 a day to about 245, said Dr. Robert Lesslie, director of the Celanese Road clinic.

Illness has hit area schools, including Winthrop University, which has reported its worst flu season since the fall and winter of 2003, said Judy Longshaw, news service coordinator.

Since the week of Jan. 21, the university's Health Services has seen about 45 students a day with flu symptoms, she said.

Piedmont Medical Center's emergency room is treating about 20 patients a day with flu symptoms, and the urgent care centers are seeing about 10, according to Myra Joines, PMC's communications director.

Many of the patients are young adults, said Joines.

"We are seeing many people that had gotten the flu shot, getting the flu," Joines said. "In these cases, the shot did not protect them from the flu, but it can make the case milder."

This year's vaccine has only been about 50 percent effective, Lesslie said. But he stopped short of blaming the increase of cases on the vaccine.

The flu vaccine contains an inactive virus that is given by a needle. Each year in China, scientists predict what strain will hit the United States, and that determines what strain goes into the vaccine.

It's not too late for a flu shot, but it takes three to four weeks for the shot to kick in to give a person protection, said Dr. Derrick Blackwell of Piedmont Family Practice in Tega Cay.

Blackwell recommends that people get the flu shot in October or November, before the flu season gets into full swing. The flu shot is effective for a year, so it is necessary to get one every year.

For those unlucky enough to get the flu this year, Tamiflu has been the most popular treatment, doctors say. The drug helps shorten the course of the flu by keeping the virus from continuing to invade the body.

Dena Gill, a pharmacist at Rite Aid in Rock Hill, said they've seen an increase in patients needing the drug, which has been on the market about five years. It is important to take the drug within 48 hours of developing symptoms for it to be effective. Tamiflu is approved for adults and children one year and older.

"It can wipe out the flu in about five days," Gill said.

Tamiflu also can be used to prevent the flu if someone in your household has it, Gill said.

Tamiflu can be pricey for those without insurance coverage. It typically costs more than $100, Gill said.

The flu, characterized by high fever, headache, extreme tiredness, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches and sometimes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, strikes about 5 to 20 percent of the U. S. population each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The flu leads to over 200,000 hospitalizations and about 36,000 deaths annually.

The elderly and the very young are more at risk for flu-related complications.

Lesslie recommends anyone over 60 and those with medical problems be seen right away should flu symptoms develop.

Potentially life-threatening secondary complications such as pneumonia can occur in these people, Lesslie said.

"These are the people that can get into trouble if they get the flu," Lesslie said.