Influenza virus has hit hard in Eagle County, but it’s not too late for a flu shot | VailDaily.com

Influenza virus has hit hard in Eagle County, but it’s not too late for a flu shot

This season’s flu vaccine hasn’t been as effective as in previous years. Still, local health officials said this season’s flu vaccine still provides some protection and there’s still time in the season to get a shot.

EAGLE COUNTY — If it seems to you like the flu has hit extra hard this year, then you're right.

Influenza has sickened a number of people in the Vail Valley. Becky Larson, an epidemiologist at Eagle County Public Health, said 10 people have been hospitalized. Of those, most have fallen ill between mid-December and this week, and seven of the people hospitalized are age 70 or older.

Larson said while peak season for the current flu bug seems to have hit early, that isn't actually the case.

"It's not the first time I've seen (flu) peak at this time," Larson said.

But, she added, it is unusual to see the flu hit as hard as it has across the country, and pretty much all at the same time.

The rest of the country getting sick matters in our valley, of course, given that people from all over the country and the world come here to vacation.

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Tania Engle, a physician's assistant for internal medicine and endocrinology at Vail Health, wrote in an email that the local hospital has seen "an increasing amount of diagnoses in the last two weeks."

This season shows how unpredictable the flu can be, Larson said. Sometimes the disease will peak in late winter, or sometimes earlier. And, since influenza is a virus, it's always evolving.

Dr. Brooks Bock, CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, said the annual flu vaccine is slightly different every year, too. Researchers come up with their best estimates of what kind of virus will hit and base the vaccine on that information.

Better than nothing

This season's vaccine hasn't been as effective as in previous years — this year's bug has been a little different than expected.

Still, both Bock and Larson said this season's flu vaccine still provides some protection, and both said there's still time in the season to get a shot.

Larson noted that medical providers, pharmacies and grocery stores all have the vaccine. Eagle County Public Health also has a good supply of the vaccine, and it's available at low or no cost to lower-income residents.

"No one is turned away," she said. And even with a less effective vaccine, "It's better than nothing," she added.

While many of us associate "flu" with gastrointestinal bugs, that's not the case.

Bock said actual flu is a respiratory disease. Symptoms are coughing, a sore throat, headaches, muscle aches and pains and profound fatigue.

In short, the flu is pretty much the worst cold in the world — like you've been run over by a bus filled with used facial tissues.

"The last time I had diagnosed flu was 10 or 12 years ago, and it was no fun," Bock said.

But because the flu acts like a bad cold, a lot of other viruses show the same symptoms, including the common cold.

If you do get sick, and get to a doctor early on, then there are anti-viral drugs that can lessen the severity of the flu. But, you have to have the actual flu.

Protect yourself

If you do fall ill, then there are a number of steps to protect yourself and others.

Engle wrote that the anti-viral drug — Tamiflu — can help reduce transmission from sick people. It's also effective in people who have and haven't gotten a flu shot.

Bock recommended that people who are sick need to stay home from school or work, at least until their fever subsides. People with the flu sometimes are asked to wear masks at home or at work.

Roommates or family members are also advised not to share dishes or eating utensils with those who have the flu. If you have a dishwasher, then run it on the hot cycle, or hand-wash dishes with very hot water and plenty of soap.

Frequent hand-washing is also a good idea. You'd be surprised how many things you touch in a day that might have been touched by a person with a bug.

People with the flu — or just colds — can also protect others by coughing or sneezing into their elbows instead of their hands.

Clothes can help suffocate the virus, Larson said.

And sneezing into a sleeve can also prevent pretty broad transmission of germs. An uncovered cough can spread the virus in a three- to six-foot area. Sneezes can be even more powerful.

None of this information is new.

"Our best prevention (tips) haven't changed," Larson said. But people forget, so the same reminders go out every season.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com and @scottnmiller.

It could be worse

While the flu has hit hard across the United States this winter, there’s little resemblance to a global flu pandemic in 1918 and 1919

According to history.com, that strain of flu sickened roughly 500 million people — about one-third of the global population. An estimated 20 million to 50 million people died, in an age before antibiotic or antiviral medications.

In the United States, almost 25 percent of the country’s population fell ill and 675,000 died.