What looked like a mild flu season has turned into one of the most active in recent years, with a surge in influenza-like illness statewide, according to the Utah Department of Health.

And though it has been complicated by the fact that the vaccine was not a perfect match for all the strains circulating, health officials say they're seeing both matched and unmatched strains.

Despite the widespread misery, the flu itself is fairly typical this year.

"We are seeing more activity than we've seen in the past few seasons," said Rachelle Boulton, epidemiologist. "But nothing indicates it's a particularly more severe strain. We're seeing hospitalizations in the high-risk group we would expect to see them in."

Utah's flu season often peaks in late January to mid-February, but later seasons are not uncommon, she said.

More reports of hospitalizations have come in the past two weeks, raising the total of flu-confirmed hospitalizations to 220. Last year at this time, there had been 143. Most of the hospitalizations were in people who fall into high-risk categories, including those 65 and older, children under 5 and those of all ages with serious medical conditions.

Nearly half the hospitalizations were reported in the past two weeks, although some of them occurred earlier but the reporting was delayed.

Lab tests have confirmed two A strains and one B strain are circulating locally, according to Boulton. But they have not been subtyped to determine how many cases are those that were poorly matched with this year's influenza vaccine. Nationally, health experts have recommended a complete makeover of the vaccine for next year.

Despite the fact that the vaccine was somewhat less effective this year, health officials are strongly urging anyone who didn't get one earlier in the season to do so now. It provides some protection even when it's not a perfect match. It reduces the risk of death and complications from flu. And it's a very good match to some of the influenza that's circulating.

There are other tips to avoid the spread of influenza. First, stay home when you're sick so you don't expose other people. Boulton emphasized the need for people who are coughing or sneezing to do so in a disposable tissue or into their elbow. And frequent and thorough hand washing — with soap and warm water — prevents spread of flu and a host of other illnesses, as well.

Influenza is a respiratory illness, although many people use the word flu as a catch-all. "People don't all understand the symptoms, which leads to other issues. 'I got the vaccine, but I got the flu.' Only when you talk to them, they didn't. There are a lot of misconceptions," Boulton said. "Flu is used to mean 'I feel sick.' It's actually a very specific illness."

There is, by the way, no such thing as a "touch of flu." True influenza hits fast and hard.

The health department says antiviral medications may be appropriate to protect high-risk individuals who can't be vaccinated or during the two weeks it takes for the vaccine to be effective.

More information is online at health.utah.gov/epi/diseases/flu.

You can find the vaccine by calling local health departments or online at www.immunize-utah.org/apps/flu/index.php.


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