SO WHERE'S THE FLU? OFFICIALS AT LOSS TO EXPLAIN 'EERILY' MILD SEASON.
At what is supposed to be the peak of flu season, influenza has yet to hit Los Angeles County, with confirmed cases at their lowest level in at least a decade, health officials said Wednesday. The trend is similar across the state and the nation, where, despite some experts' predictions of an early and heavy flu season, the bug has been a virtual no-show so far.
``Where is it?'' asked Dr. David Dassey, deputy chief of acute communicable disease control with the Los Angeles County health department.
``Clearly, by this time virtually every year we're in the midst of pretty substantial respiratory disease, of which influenza is the big one. At the moment, there's nothing going on.''
The reasons are unknown, officials say, and the speculation runs from greater public awareness of diseases and viruses after the anthrax scares to less travel as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks. But there are still at least two months left in the flu season and Dassey noted that the virus could easily strike any time through the end of February.
Doctors at local hospitals report they are still busy handling other types of respiratory illness and other viruses that mimic flu symptoms, although they are no more busy than in a typical winter.
``Most people are coming in with coughs and colds and viral respiratory infections, but they're not having any true flus yet,'' said Dr. Erin Wycoff with Kaiser Permanente's Panorama City Medical Center. ``We're still pretty busy. There's plenty of other things coming at us.''
The major difference between those flulike bugs and actual influenza is that influenza strains mutate almost every year, evading the body's natural immune system defenses and triggering the need for vaccines specifically tailored every year to the expected strains, according to Dr. Robert Murray of the California Health Department.
But the flulike illnesses usually don't mutate much from year to year, so the body can build up better immunity, he said. However, there are also some drugs on the market to treat influenza, but few to address most of the flulike illnesses, he said.
Influenza symptoms generally involve aches, coughing and wheezing, but in severe cases can result in hospitalization and even death in the most vulnerable populations.
Nationwide, about 20,000 people die from influenza every year, but that is often in combination with other illnesses such as pneumonia, according to health officials.
The peak for influenza in California is usually late December to early January, Murray said. There have been ``eerily'' few cases statewide this year, he said.
Officials have few definitive reasons.
``Maybe the immunity levels in the community have risen to a high enough level and the viruses that are circulating haven't changed that much,'' Murray said. ``It's a relatively mild season. It does happen every once in a while. I'm not sure the reasons for it are all that well understood.''
Health officials also said the vaccines produced this year seem to match the few strains that are circulating.
Dassey noted that travel is down this year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, leading to less opportunities for the virus to spread, but he wasn't sure to what extent that could explain the drop. It also was unknown to what extent people may have been more conscious of transmitting diseases and viruses after the nationwide anthrax scare, he said.
Los Angeles County's health surveillance program, which involves 20 private doctors countywide, has only reported four influenza cases so far this season - all in West Los Angeles - compared with 41 at this time last year and 91 the year before, according to Dassey.
The four cases represent the lowest level in at least a decade, he said. The figure does not represent total cases countywide, but is a small sample that gives officials a basis of comparison for the severity of the outbreak from year to year.
Nationwide, the influenza season has been slightly milder than normal, although it still is early in the season, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Only one state, Alaska, has been hard hit by influenza so far this year, while two other states are facing regional outbreaks and 36 others, plus New York City and Washington D.C., are having sporadic outbreaks. Eleven states have no reported influenza activity so far this year. By comparison, at this time last year only seven states had no influenza activity, and in 1999 only two states had no activity.
Still, it remains early in the season nationally, although California's season tends to peak slightly earlier.
``When the flu season will become widespread is unpredictable,'' said CDC spokesman Curtis Allen. ``In 15 of the last 19 years, it didn't peak until January or later.''
There is still plenty of influenza vaccine available nationwide, and time to take it for it to be effective, Allen said. The vaccine was produced late this year because one of the four companies that manufacture it went out of business, but the remaining three stepped up their operations and produced 87 million units, more than ever before, he said.
He said there has been some confusion among people who rushed to take vaccines against anthrax, and said while the early symptoms of the two illnesses may be similar, the medications are entirely different.
Health officials were also encouraging people to get vaccinated for influenza so that they wouldn't mistake the symptoms for anthrax.
``We hope people realize there is a difference,'' Allen said. ``If you want to avoid the flu, take the flu vaccine.''
``Whether or not you're healthy or in great shape doesn't impact whether you can get the flu. It can strike anyone.''
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Article Type:||Statistical Data Included|
|Date:||Dec 27, 2001|
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