WILKES-BARRE — January’s sporadic weather — it has been rainy and warm on some days, followed by extreme cold and snow only days later — could indirectly lead to more cases of influenza.
“We have always thought that fluctuating temperatures may affect the way people socialize and congregate during the winter, so anything that brings larger groups of people together indoors will be more likely to spread flu,” said Dr. Lisa Esolen, director of infection control at Geisinger Health System.
Maureen Litchman, a family practitioner at Family Care Center in Kingston, also said the weather, while not directly responsible, can lead to exposure as people congregate more in warmer weather.
Esolen said the medical center has just begun seeing the flu locally, but she expects cases of the illness to “dramatically increase” over the next eight weeks.
One trend Esolen has already seen this year is there are more incidents of younger adults requiring hospitalization.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the flu is now widespread in 35 states, including Pennsylvania. The state’s Department of Health classifies widespread as “recent laboratory-confirmed influenza in at least half the regions of the state with recent laboratory evidence of influenza in the state.”
Holli Senior, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Health, said the CDC is classifying this year’s season “moderate to severe” so far. At this time last year, Senior said, there were 16,523 documented flu cases. This year, there have been 6,053 total cases so far.
“Last year was an extremely active flu season,” she said.
Matthew Van Stone, public relations specialist for Geisinger Health System,said the H1N1 strain of the flu virus is the most prominent, accounting for 96 percent of all cases. He said H1N1 “disproportionately” affects younger, healthier people.
“So far this year, 34 percent of all hospitalizations are in people aged 18 to 49, as compared with only 16 percent last year,” he said.
Litchman said H1N1 tends to have more severe symptoms than other strains. When patients catch the disease, she said it “knocks them for a loop.” She said anybody who is immuno-compromised or in the extreme age ranges (young are old) are especially susceptible.
The state Department of Health reports there have been 14 flu-related deaths reported. Six deaths were reported in patients age 19 to 49, and eight were reported in patients 50 and older.
“Fortunately, it’s a small percentage of the people that actually come down with the flu,” Litchman said in reference to the fatalities.
Flu seasons typically run from the end of October to the end of April. So far, Litchman has seen several cases in the Kingston office as well as in the emergency room at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital.
Van Stone and Esolen recommended the flu vaccine for anyone over 6 months old. Esolen listed a number of exceptions, including women who are pregnant, anyone that can have a life-threatening allergic reaction to eggs and anyone who has had a history of a severe neurological or paralyzing reaction to a prior flu vaccination.
Litchman said one thing she notices each year is that people are often encouraged to get their flu shots at the beginning of the season.
Most put it off, but as publicity increases about the disease and potential flu-related deaths, she said it serves as motivation to get people in for a shot. Litchman said the vaccination not only protects individuals from becoming sick, but others as well.