Consider it official: The flu bug is in town.
At noon on Thursday, Children’s Mercy Hospital started giving rapid flu tests to kids coming in with flu-like symptoms of coughs and fevers and muscle aches. The hospital doesn’t start using those tests routinely until it begins to see a critical mass of flu cases.
“This is opening day of the flu season,” said Christopher Harrison, director of the infectious disease research laboratory at Children’s Mercy. “And we are about a month early.”
Actually, the viral infections started appearing in a big way as we were gathering for our Thanksgiving feasts.
The latest Missouri data show 451 newly confirmed flu cases statewide last week and 403 cases the week before. In all, there have been 2,088 confirmed cases in Missouri so far this season.
On average, the state has reports of just 213 cases by this time.
The big picture is harder to see in Kansas, where flu isn’t routinely reported to the state, so there are no hard numbers to go by.
But so far, there doesn’t appear to be a flu surge.
“We’re not seeing a remarkable number of cases,” said Jennifer Dunlay of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.
That may be because we haven’t felt the full force of the viral wave yet.
“Flu typically hits the eastern side of Missouri first,” said Jeff Hershberger of the Kansas City Health Department. “We’re still pretty mild.”
Just over 100 of Missouri’s confirmed flu cases to date have been in the Kansas City metro area, according to Hershberger.
Neither Kansas City nor Johnson County health officials have received any reports of high absentee rates at schools.
But children may be particularly susceptible to the flu this season.
The largest increase in cases in Missouri so far this year, compared to previous seasons, has been among children 14 years old and younger.
“When you see those big bursts of cases, it’s probably being spread in schools and preschools and day care,” said Harrison of Children’s Mercy.
The prevalent flu strains this season are different from those that were common in recent years, Harrison said. While older children and adults may have some immunity from being exposed to similar viruses in the past, young children lack that protection.
Also boding ill for young children: In recent weeks there has been an uptick in children developing severe bacterial pneumonia as a complication from the flu. Children’s Mercy didn’t see such cases during the previous flu season.
Add together the complications, the lack of immunity and the early start to the flu, and Harrison said:
“If you were going to pull out the crystal ball, this would predict a worse than average flu season.”
Nationwide, flu cases usually start to mount in late December or early January and reach their peak in February.
And if you haven’t gotten a flu shot yet, it may be that you were lulled by the 2011-2012 season.
That unusually mild flu season didn’t peak until mid-March; the season had the shortest and lowest peak period on record.