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Flu strain's early emergence, dominance is somewhat unexpected, experts say

Palm Beach Post - 12/27/2019

Seasonal flu activity has been elevated across the nation for the past six weeks and continues to increase amid an early outbreak of the Influenza B strain of the virus, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Influenza B tends to be more common near the end of a flu season, CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said. While both humans and animals can contract influenza A, influenza B is almost always passed from human to human. The symptoms of the two viruses are similar, but influenza B often causes a less severe reaction.

"Unfortunately, we don't know why we're seeing this," Nordlund said. "Influenza is unpredictable. While flu spreads every year, the timing, severity and length of the season varies from one season to another."

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At least 3.7 million flu illnesses and 1,800 deaths from the flu have been reported nationwide since the beginning of October, according to the CDC's most recent U.S. Surveillance Influenza report.

In Florida, cases of the influenza A 2009, or H1N1, strain have increased notably in recent weeks, but the Influenza B Victoria strain remains the most common, in line with the national trend, the Florida Department of Health reports.

Influenza and influenza-like activity increased in Florida during the week of Dec. 15-21 and remained above levels that were observed at the same point in previous flu seasons, the state Department of Health said its weekly report on influenza cases.

"I definitely recommend getting a flu shot if you haven't already," said Dr. Jaime Snarski, an emergency medicine physician at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center. "(The flu season) typically peaks in January and February, so getting it now can still protect you."

The vaccines are designed to guard against the three or four strains experts believe will be most common during the season. Flu activity this season is being caused mostly by the influenza B/Victoria strain, which is unusual for this time of year, the CDC reports.

Snarski said Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center has seen both strains have been seen in the cases it has treated. Both strains are covered in in the current flu vaccine.

According to the latest in-season flu burden estimates from CDC, there were at least 3.7 million flu illnesses between Oct. 1 and Dec. 14. Learn more: https://t.co/kP4fa20fCBpic.twitter.com/EjGnfEKyYY

-- CDC Flu (@CDCFlu) December 20, 2019Snarski said there has been an noticeable uptick in the number of flu cases coming into the hospital in recent days, with about 10 or more patients a day seeking treatment for the virus.

"Over the past week, I've seen an increase," Snarski said. "It's nowhere near as bad the peak of last year. It still could get a lot worse."

She said the rate of cases is "on par for this time of year."

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Palm Beach County was one of two counties in the state to report elevated flu activity last week, according to the Florida Department of Health's most recent report. Martin County reported mild but increasing activity.

Influenza activity in the United States often begins to increase in October and can last as late as May, according to the CDC.

Health officials recommend that people get a flu vaccination as soon as possible, if they have not already done so, because they say it takes about two weeks for antibodies to build up.

Besides vaccinations, health officials say residents can help prevent the flu from spreading by regularly washing hands, covering their nose and mouth when sneezing or coughing, and staying home if sick.

"If you're not well, you should keep your distance and stay home if you're sick and be in contact with your doctor," said Renay Rouse, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Martin County.

jwhigham@pbpost.com

@JuliusWhigham

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