Health

What does Australia's flu season mean for Iowa? Hint: Not good things

State public health officials predict increase in activity soon

Influenza vaccine is seen in its packaging at a flu shot clinic for employees and volunteers at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The hospital mandates flu vaccines for its employees and volunteers and provides them free of charge. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Influenza vaccine is seen in its packaging at a flu shot clinic for employees and volunteers at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. The hospital mandates flu vaccines for its employees and volunteers and provides them free of charge. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A rough influenza season may be in the forecast for this year, and state public health officials are encouraging able Iowans to get their flu shot before the virus arrives in force.

U.S. public health officials look to the southern hemisphere to predict the upcoming season, as the virus usually hits that part of the world before the United States.

Australia just weathered one of the worst flu seasons on record. According to public health officials there, 2019 is the second largest influenza season in 20 years with more than 73,000 laboratory-confirmed cases and 147 influenza-related deaths.

Because of that, “we wonder if (the United States) might also see a higher volume year compared to last year,” said Dr. Caitlin Pedati, state medical director and epidemiologist with the Iowa Department of Public Health.

But Pedati said the same virus that circulates in the southern hemisphere doesn’t always circulate in the U.S.

“It can be unpredictable, which is why the best thing to do is get the flu shot — particularly now, before we see the activity increase,” she said.

Public health officials also look to last year’s season to develop each the influenza vaccine.

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This year’s vaccine was developed to better address H3N2, an “A” strain that was the prominent virus this past year’s season.

It was also the prominent virus during the 2017-2018 season, which hospitalized or killed more Americans than any seasonal flu in more than 40 years, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials estimated about 79,400 Americans died and 959,000 were hospitalized — which was mostly likely caused in part by low vaccination rates. 207 Iowans died that season due to influenza-related activity, according to state public health officials.

According to Australian public health officials, the 2017-2018 season brought the highest activity in the country since the 2009 pandemic.

Influenza season officially began in October in the United States and some states are reporting high activity of influenza-like illnesses, including Louisiana and Puerto Rico, the CDC stated.

The activity levels throughout Iowa are still sporadic. The Iowa Department of Public Health has reported 23 laboratory-confirmed flu virus from the end of September to the end of October. Most of those cases were influenza A.

However, with the holidays around the corner, Pedati expects to see flu activity to pick up in the coming weeks.

“Part of it is because if you think about how a virus like the flu moves, it moves from person to person,” Pedati said. “The more opportunities we give it by interacting with each other, the more its able to move around. That tends to happen in gatherings and holiday celebrations.”

That’s why state public health officials say it’s important for Iowans to take advantage of the flu shot as a preventive tool, so they can be ready for whatever the season brings.

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“This is exactly the time we want to make sure we’re taking advantage of getting the flu shot so that we’ve got our immunity in place and we know how to fight the virus,” Pedati said.

State public health officials have also reported 13 influenza-related hospitalizations — mostly among the young and old Iowans, who are most susceptible for developing the virus.

Children younger than the age of 2, adults aged 65 and older, pregnant women and those with chronic medical conditions or weak immune systems are most likely to experience complications from the flu.

Since the vaccine is meant to prevent serious illness, not everyone who receives a vaccine will avoid becoming infected.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue. Some people also experience vomiting and diarrhea, but this is more common in children, the CDC stated.

Those with symptoms but who normally are healthy are encouraged to stay home until they feel better, to cover their coughs and to wash their hands frequently.

Individuals should seek medical attention if they are having trouble breathing, if they have high fevers or they are hard to wake up. Those who have a fever that falls and then reoccurs also are encouraged to see a doctor because that could be a sign that they have been infected with a secondary bacteria.

Comments: (319) 368-8536; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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