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    This flu season more sniffle than dreadful

    A late-arriving vaccine had doctors worried. They say we dodged a bullet.

    By WES ALLISON

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


    The season started in a panic, with frantic phone calls to walk-in clinics and hospitals and supermarkets: Do you have it?

    Until December, the usual answer was no.

    But regardless of the late arrival of this year's supply of the flu vaccine, doctors, health departments and hospitals across Florida and the United States are celebrating the lightest flu season in six or seven years -- one that never saw influenza deaths reach the typical epidemic proportions.

    "I was thinking we were heading for a very difficult year, because we didn't get a lot of people vaccinated very early, and we could have really gotten hit hard," said Dr. Steven Wiersma, the deputy state epidemiologist in Tallahassee. "We really dodged the bullet."

    March usually marks the end of the flu season.

    All four of the Florida Department of Health's key indicators show flu being below normal in most areas of the state, and Florida is one of 13 states that have reported below-normal activity all winter.

    Local hospitals and the Florida Hospital Association, which represents 230 hospitals across the state, say their emergency rooms have been full this winter, but not with achy, feverish victims of the flu.

    "They're seeing a handful of cases here and there, but certainly we're not seeing the epidemic of influenza like we've seen in the past," said Dr. Barry Solomon, an emergency room physician and medical director of the flu shot program at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. "We've gotten lucky."

    Wiersma and other physicians say they can't explain why this winter's flu season was malaised, but they can speculate. The flu appeared to hop, skip and jump its way across the country, rather than wash across in waves, reducing exposure in some communities.

    The vaccine also appeared to work against all 247 virus strains identified by the CDC, which doesn't always happen. Some doctors suggested the furor over the vaccine shortage heightened awareness, leading more people eventually to get a flu shot.

    "People were really waiting for it, and when it hit, when it became public knowledge, people got into their doctors and got it," Solomon said.

    About 20,000 people die from the flu or flu-related illness each year and 110,000 are hospitalized.

    One of the ways epidemiologists measure the severity of the flu season is by determining what percentage of deaths can be attributed to influenza or pneumonia, a common complication. For the first time in about a decade, flu and pneumonia deaths nationally never reached the epidemic level of 8.7 percent, Dr. Keiji Fukuda, chief of influenza epidemiology at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, told Knight Ridder news service.

    Last season's death rate reached the epidemic level during 33 weeks out of the 35-week season and peaked at 11.2 percent.

    The state health department also gets weekly reports from 100 physicians who determine the percentage of their patients with flu-like symptoms. In mid-February, the last report available, just 2 percent of patients had flu-like symptoms, well under the normal baseline of 3 percent.

    Reported outbreaks and laboratory-confirmed cases of influenza, two more key indicators, also were below normal.

    "This traditionally is the end," Wiersma said Wednesday. "You can still get late flu, so we never let down our guard, but I think it's unlikely that were going to see a sudden surge of flu activity."

    Most doctors encourage their patients, especially the elderly or ill, to get vaccinated each fall by Oct. 30. That allows the vaccine to help the body build immunity to the virus by the time influenza arrives around Thanksgiving.

    This year, however, production problems at major suppliers kept the vaccine in short supply until early December. Luckily, unlike last winter, the flu didn't begin to strike most regions of the country until January or, in some cases, early February.

    But doctors warned Wednesday against complacency: Just because the flu was docile this year doesn't mean it will be weak next winter, too. Patients still should get their flu shots in October, provided it's available. (No problems are expected, but it likely will be summer before any delays are known.)

    "This was an unusual season, and I don't think patients should take it lightly," said Dr. George D. Harris, a family physician at Bayfront Medical Center and president of the Florida Academy of Family Physicians.

    "The ones we have trouble convincing, this just gave them another reason not to get it."

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