Flu season starts early, but it’s too soon to tell if it will hit harder

The flu virus hit the Kansas City area early and spread fast this season.

Now the next few weeks will reveal just how severe the virus’ outbreak will be.

So far this season, more than 13,000 flu cases have been reported in Missouri. That is an almost 2,000 percent increase from the five-season average for this early in the winter. Typically about 650 flu cases are reported by this point in the flu season in Missouri.

Children younger than 15 have been the hardest hit by this season’s flu virus, officials in Missouri and Kansas said. They account for two-thirds of the total flu cases that have been reported in Missouri.

Yet, the number of new flu cases is declining in Kansas City. Some 200 new flu cases were reported last week, down from 275 the week before, according to Jeff Hershberger of the Kansas City Health Department.

Kansas also has seen more early flu cases this season, according to Nancy Tausz of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

Most of Johnson County’s flu cases have been reported in the last three weeks, Tausz said. However, the spread of the flu in Kansas is harder to track because health-care providers are not required to report new flu cases to the state.

Hershberger said one possible explanation for the recent decline in reported flu cases in Kansas City is that sick people avoided going to a doctor or clinic because of the holidays. The number of reported cases in the coming weeks will indicate whether the region is in for a continued drop.

“If it continues to go the direction it’s going right now, then this year would be a very mild year,” Hershberger said. “But, again, it’s still pretty early in the process.”

Nationally, it’s unclear whether this flu season will be an early, short-lasting season or whether the early start will indicate a prolonged, intense flu season, said Michael Jhung of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Compared to last year, we already know that it will be worse,” Jhung said.

The last time Missouri experienced an early spike in flu cases, followed by a second, equally large spike was during 2006-2007 flu season. That season, the number of new flu cases reached about 1,500 in December before decreasing to less than 1,000. By February, however, the number of cases had reached the 1,500 mark again.

It’s not too late to get a flu shot, and anyone older than 6 months can receive it.

“Put that in bold letters: the flu shot is still the best way to fight the flu,” Tausz said.

The best ways to contain the spread of the flu are to wash your hands, to stay away from work if you come down with the illness and to keep sick children home from school or day care, Tausz said.

Regularly washing your hands is crucially important because, Hershberger said, people with the virus can infect others for up to 24 hours before they show any symptoms.