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Flu cases drop in Kansas City, but it’s ‘still out there’

Sa’Mieyai Sherman received a flu vaccine Friday afternoon at a Children’s Mercy clinic at 3101 Broadway. Her mother, Sheree Grimmett (left), brought Sa’Mieyai in for her one-year checkup.
Sa’Mieyai Sherman received a flu vaccine Friday afternoon at a Children’s Mercy clinic at 3101 Broadway. Her mother, Sheree Grimmett (left), brought Sa’Mieyai in for her one-year checkup. The Kansas City Star

This is “yes, but” time for the 2014-2015 flu season.

Yes, the number of flu cases in Kansas City and nationally is down dramatically from just a few weeks ago. But there’s still plenty of flu circulating right now, and doctors say it could stick around for weeks, or even months.

And yes, this year’s vaccine doesn’t match up well with the prevalent flu virus this season. But there’s evidence that the shots still may be offering protection to some people, particularly children. And the shots also guard against other flu strains that could emerge later in the season.

Locally, the flu may have reached its peak in the week before Christmas, when 597 confirmed flu cases were reported to the Kansas City Health Department. By the first week after New Year’s Day, the number of new cases had dropped to 282.

National data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a sizable drop since the end of December in doctor visits for flu-like illnesses. Yet other CDC data show that flu remains geographically widespread, rather than limited to certain regions.

“It feels like from what I’ve been hearing there are fewer cases out there,” said Jeff Hershberger of the Kansas City Health Department. “But the flu’s still out there. People still need to be protecting themselves.”

That protection includes getting a flu shot and, if you’re already feeling sick, having your doctor prescribe an anti-viral medication that can reduce flu symptoms.

This season’s flu has been more prevalent and more severe than in many recent years, said Lee Norman, chief medical officer of the University of Kansas Hospital.

Less than two weeks ago, KU Hospital was caring for as many as 49 flu patients at a time. Now it’s down to about eight to 10 flu cases each day.

But that just takes the hospital to the numbers it was seeing the previous two flu seasons, Norman said. “And the last two years were problem years for the flu.”

The CDC this week compared the severity and timing of influenza activity so far this season to that of the 2012-2013 flu season, which it described as “moderately severe.” The course of previous flu seasons suggests the current season might continue for several weeks, the CDC said, although some parts of the country could see flu activity continue to increase.

The flu’s devastating potential was underscored Friday by the announcement by Children’s Mercy Hospital that two of its patients had died of flu complications. Three other children with the flu were in the hospital’s intensive-care unit.

Nationwide, the CDC had reports of 45 flu-related deaths among children so far this season. In the 2013-2014 flu season, 109 children were reported to have died of flu-related causes.

Children’s Mercy emergency rooms and clinics saw flu cases peak around Christmas; since then, fewer children have been coming in with flu symptoms and smaller percentages have been testing positive for flu, said Robyn Livingston, medical director for infection prevention and control at the hospital.

But with children back in school and sharing their viruses, “occasionally we see a second peak. We’ll be watching closely for that.”

Livingston said it’s not too late to get a flu shot; flu sometimes lingers into May. And people shouldn’t be discouraged, she said, by news that the vaccine hasn’t been very effective this year.

Laboratory tests have found that two-thirds of the H3N2 flu viruses causing most of the illnesses now are genetically different from the H3N2 virus covered by the vaccine. Initial CDC estimates released this week show that the vaccine reduces a person’s chance of ending up at a doctor’s office with the flu by about 23 percent. During seasons when there’s a good match between virus and vaccine, chances of avoiding the doctor improve to as much as 60 percent.

But even 23 percent protection is better than none, Livingston said. And a person who’s been vaccinated but gets the flu may suffer less-severe symptoms than someone who isn’t vaccinated. “You may get some cross immunity and some protection,” she said.

Another consideration is the other flu viruses that may circulate this season. Getting sick with H3N2 won’t keep you from catching them, but a flu shot may, Livingston said.

Sheree Grimmett wasn’t planning to get her daughter a flu shot Friday when she took her to a Children’s Mercy clinic for a routine checkup. Grimmett had heard the news about the vaccine not working.

But 1-year-old Sa’Mieyai ended up getting vaccinated, after all.

“I was a little iffy about it, but her pediatrician assured me it was going to be OK and not a waste,” Grimmett said. “All I’m worried about is her not getting the flu.”

To reach Alan Bavley, call 816-234-4858 or send email to abavley@kcstar.com.

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