Influenza is moving much faster and is more widespread in Ohio than it was last winter, and Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner said there is a similar trend locally.
“We’re seeing more cases this year a little earlier than the last couple years,” Warner said, “but I don’t think it’s anything to be particularly concerned with.”
Warner said January and February are usually the most active times for the flu, but he also said every flu season is a little different.
He also encouraged local residents to get a flu shot.
“It’s one of the best things you can do to protect yourself from the flu,” Warner said. “And even if you get the flu, you’re less likely to have a severe case if you have had a flu shot.”
In the Ohio Department of Health’s northwest Ohio region, which includes 18 counties, 21 cases of influenza-related hospitalizations were reported during the week of Dec. 3-9, compared to just five during the same week in 2016.
“Each flu season year is just different than other years. Across the state there’s been in an increase in most of the region in terms of associated illnesses and hospitalizations,” said Williams County Health Department Director of Nursing Rachel Aeschliman.
The state’s influenza situation was designated “widespread” by the ODH last week.
Widespread is the most serious designation. Last winter, the state didn’t reach that level until mid-January.
Two weeks ago, the state announced hospitalizations were “much higher” across Ohio than last season.
“We’re seeing a little earlier start than we did last year,” said Aeschliman. “Unfortunately, it’s just in time for the holidays.”
Aeschliman said that effective flu shots are still available and it’s never too late to get one.
“We like to remind everyone that it’s important to stay home when you’re sick, practice hand washing and that it’s still not too late to get a flu shot,” she said.
As always, knowing is half the battle.
“People with the flu generally have respiratory system issues, coughing, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches,” she explained. “In children they can also have vomiting or diarrhea … A fever can happen with the flu, but not every case will have it.”
In different years, Aeschliman said, “it’s been earlier and later. It’s always easier to see in hindsight.”
The Dayton Daily News reported there have been 401 flu-associated hospitalizations statewide since the ODH declared the “widespread” status. There were 8,661 flu-associated hospitalizations in Ohio in all of 2016.
The ODH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot as soon as possible.
Complicating matters this year is the questionable efficacy of flu vaccines.
Normally in severe flu seasons, like this one, the reasons for the disease’s prevalence are pretty straightforward. Flu vaccines have long been manufactured in a decades-old process that involves growing the influenza virus in millions of chicken eggs over a period of about four months beginning in the spring, meaning the specific strains of influenza expected for that particular season must be predicted.
This year’s shot includes H1N1, H3N2 and an influenza B, which are being manifest. Still, the alleged inefficacy of this year’s batch is calling into question the process itself.
“There is evidence that growing the vaccine virus in eggs resulted in changes that altered the vaccine’s effectiveness,” said Brendan Flannery, an epidemiologist in the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an interview with TIME Magazine.
According to TIME, when researchers compared the H3N2 strain from infected people with the original H3N2 reference strain designated by the WHO, they did not find many differences. But when they compared the virus in infected people to the vaccine virus that was grown in eggs, they saw changes.
“The take-home message is that vaccine production, growing the virus in eggs, can cause some of the problems we are seeing,” said Flannery.
Also according to TIME, scientists have yet to find a consistently suitable replacement process.
That being said, the scientific and medical community is by and large in agreement that getting vaccinated is still the best bet.