BY MELANIE BUCK –
Arkansas is on the list as one of the states with ‘high’ levels of influenza outbreak in the country; however, Chief Nursing Officer at Mena Regional Health System, Rick Billingsley said, “Although we are seeing a lot of flu-like illness, we are only seeing moderate confirmed flu” in Polk County. He added, “It’s less than what we would expect this time of year.”
Kerry Krell, Public Information Officer for the Arkansas Department of Health, said there is influenza all over the state although the numbers are difficult to gather. “Not everyone who gets the flu goes to the doctor and not every doctor tests for the flu.” Krell explained that when a doctor sees several patients in the day with the same symptoms, the logical conclusion is the flu. Also, the cost is deemed a waste of patients’ fees. Due to these factors, Krell stated, “The numbers we have are an underestimate at best.”
Even with the numbers being underestimated, there have been twenty-four recorded deaths due to influenza in the state since the season began in September. Most of these deaths have occurred in people over the age of 65.
The biggest concern among citizens is that this year’s most prominent vaccine is not well matched with the most prominent flu strain of the season. Vaccines are made months ahead of time and are based on speculation of what strains will be the worst during season. Although there is a small amount of the hardest hitting strain, H3N2, in the vaccine, the strain ‘drifted’ between the time the vaccine was made and flu season hit. ‘Drifting’ is small changes in the genes of influenza viruses that happen continually over time as the virus replicates. This constant mutation is the main reason it is hard to produce a vaccine that will work at its best compacity. “We do know that the other strains in the vaccine are circulating, H1N1, two Type B flu are also circulating. They are in the vaccine and they are well matched,” said Krell.
Even with the chance it won’t work, Krell strongly encourages people to get the vaccine, “A lot of people think the vaccine doesn’t work. Some protection is better than none. It’s really important for those getting the sickest. Anyone with a chronic disease, diabetes, cancer, any immune deficiency, kids under 5, especially under 2, everyone over the age of 65, and pregnant women. It’s ok to get during any trimester of pregnancy. Babies can’t get the flu shot until they’re 6 months old but by giving it to mom while pregnant, it passes to the baby and protects it until it can get one itself.”
Indicators of the flu are fever, body aches, cough or sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headache, chills, fatigue, and nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
Krell said, “Vaccine is the first step to avoiding the flu, hand washing is second, and instead of handshaking, do a ‘fistbump’ because you have more germs inside of your palm than the outside. Also, if you do get sick, stay home from work and school, not just for others’ benefits but so that you have time to recoup.” Billingsley reiterated that advice stating, “Be preventative and get the vaccine, wash your hands, cover your mouth, and stay home.”
Mena Public School Nurse sent a statement concerning flu cases and school attendance, which read, “At this time we are seeing an increase in the number of students with flu symptoms. We would like to remind you that your child must stay home for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever of 100 F or higher without the use of medications such as Tylenol, Advil, or Ibuprofen. Nursing staff may send your child home with temperatures less than 100 F, if your child has flu-like symptoms such as body aches, chills, cough, headache, and chest discomfort. Additional guidelines for keeping ill children at home will be posted on the schools website, http://www.menaschools.org/.”