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Article updated: 1/4/2013 4:06 PM

Flu season comes early, hits hard in suburbs

By Justin Kmitch

Flu patients are filling suburban emergency rooms much earlier and at a much faster rate this season, though local health officials aren't exactly sure why.

Illinois is experiencing one of the greatest flu outbreaks in the nation and it is triggering large numbers of cases in local emergency rooms, according to officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Officials say the easiest way to avoid the emergency room could be as simple as getting a flu shot. The vaccine is still available, and the CDC reports it can prevent 90 percent of the season's circulating strains.

The typical flu season peaks in mid- to late January and carries into late March, but health officials say major cases began popping up this year as early as Thanksgiving.

"This has been a very early and bad flu season so far this year. Normally we see an average of 200 cases per season, but it is only Jan. 3 and we already have seen more than 260 confirmed cases," said Edward Hospital's Infection Control Manager Mary Anderson. "There have been many years where we see only a handful of cases before it picks up in January through March, so this has been a very unusual year for us."

Same for Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville and Downers Grove's Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital. Condell has reported 208 confirmed cases since Thanksgiving.

"We are seeing more cases of Influenza A than we usually do at this time of the year," Condell spokesman Josh McColough said. There, the number of cases jumped from 11 to 55 during the week of Nov. 25.

The DuPage County Health Department has recorded flu outbreaks at 18 institutions such as schools, long-term care facilities and senior-living facilities.

In Kane County, health officials report that 8.5 percent of hospital emergency room visits were patients reporting flu symptoms, the highest weekly rate recorded in the past six years. School absenteeism was at the highest level in four years, the health department reported.

The cause of all the flu is elusive. A common misconception, experts say, is that mild winters don't kill many germs, leading to more outbreaks. Actually, the timing of a flu outbreak is unpredictable and varies from season to season.

"There has been some research into weather patterns playing a role, but the timing is significant," Anderson said. "The holidays tend to be a time when we circulate more and spend much more time with many more people. That only increases the opportunity for us to share our germs along with our gifts."

Anderson said the strength of this year's H3N2 strain, which hasn't reared its head since before 2009's H1N1 pandemic, could be a cause for the early, increased outbreak.

"The epidemiology of influenza is a little bit of a mystery because every flu season is different," she said. "Strains emerge and disappear and do all kinds of things that make predicting flu season impossible.

"For instance, we're already part way into this season and there's no way of knowing if it will end early because it started so early or if it will continue through March."

Aside from getting the vaccine, you can help yourself avoid the flu or infecting others by regularly washing your hands for at least 15 seconds and keeping your distance from others.

"Distance is a really good thing right now, so stay home. If you have to go out, cover your cough and try not to spread the germs," Anderson said. "The flu is not hard to kill with soap and water, either. Just 15 seconds of friction is all it takes to clean your hands."

Ÿ Daily Herald staff writers Elena Ferrarin, Elisabeth Mistretta and Bob Susnjara contributed to this report.

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