Swine flu outbreak in Louisiana

“Get your shot, stay away from sick people and wash your hands a lot.” DR. FRANK WELCH, immunization medical director for the state Office of Public Health

Louisiana physicians are seeing a “big uptick” in flu-type illnesses as patients line up at doctor’s offices and hospitals across the state.

The rate is nearly three times what the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention projects as normal for the region.

And it’s virtually all the swine flu variety, known as H1N1 influenza, said Dr. Frank Welch, immunization medical director for the state Office of Public Health, adding, “We expect it to continue.”

The H1N1 strain reached epidemic proportions in the state when it first appeared here in 2009. The entire region from Texas to Alabama currently is painted red on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s flu activity map. Red is the agency’s highest level.

The normal rate for the flu in CDC counts, what the Atlanta-based federal agency calls the “base line” is about 3 percent or 2.9 patients with flu-type illnesses per 100 patient visits to a doctor’s office or clinic. Louisiana is now above 8 percent, almost triple what the normal rate for this region.

The big jump occurred in the final weeks of 2013. Tracking started for the 2013-2014 period in October.

“We are certainly seeing it, and the data suggests a lot of flu in the area,” said Dr. Fred Lopez, with the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. “There’s been widespread flu activity in half of the states in the country. Louisiana has been one of them for two weeks in a row.”

Welch and Lopez said it’s not too late for Louisiana residents to get a flu shot.

“Get your shot, stay away from sick people and wash your hands a lot,” said Welch.

Lopez, an infectious disease specialist, said the vaccine this year protects against four different strains of the flu, including the H1N1, which is showing up in Louisiana.

“The vaccine is well-targeted toward the prevalent strains,” said Lopez. But, he said, “It takes two weeks for the antibodies to develop the immunization to protect against the flu.”

The flu shot protects an individual 85 to 90 percent of the time, Welch said. If someone gets a shot and gets the flu, it would be less severe, he said.

Louisiana statistics, like those around the country, are based on information submitted weekly by what are called “sentinel” surveillance sites, including hospitals and the offices of doctors with both large and small practices. In Louisiana, there are 64 such sites doing the reporting to the CDC.

“From what we are seeing statewide it is really going widespread,” Welch said.

The last two flu seasons were fairly mild in Louisiana following a pretty bad October 2010 to September 2011 stretch when the number climbed to around 20 patients with flu-type illnesses per 100 patients seen by a doctor. The numbers that year started to climb in the last weeks of 2010 - registering about the same as they are today - and peaked in late January-early February 2011. Prior to that the worst numbers came in 2008-09 when the statistics hit 22 patients with flu-like illnesses per 100.

Flu symptoms include cough, fever, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Swine flu can lead to more serious complications than seasonal flu, including pneumonia and respiratory failure.

Vaccination of the high-risk is especially important including young children, pregnant women, people with chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, heart or lung disease and those age 65-plus.

Healthy people between the ages of 2 and 49 also have the option to get a vaccine through nasal spray.

Lopez suggested healthy younger people should also get the vaccine, noting they too have been affected and developed serious complications from the H1N1 virus.