Health officials warn of influenza outbreak

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According to the state Department of Health, Pennsylvanians are seeing an uptick in flu activity this season.


Earlier this week, the department announced that flu activity has increased from “sporadic” to “widespread,” the most serious level, following the Thanksgiving holiday. Half of the state’s regions have reported outbreaks of influenza.


This year’s flu has had an early start. So far, the influenza virus has infected 27 people in Washington County. Nearby Allegheny County has had the most people infected in the entire state with 147 confirmed cases since October. There have been a total of 448 flu cases so far throughout the whole commonwealth.


The Department of Health recommends that everyone older than 6 months get vaccinated. The vaccine is especially important for those with an increased risk of complications from the flu.


“Some elderly people, those who are pregnant or those with chronic illnesses don’t respond very well to influenza virus,” said Kait Gillis, the department’s deputy press secretary. “If you live with someone older, it’s imperative you get vaccinated to ensure that they’re safe.”


Each year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes up with a new flu vaccine based on which genetic mutations they think the viruses will present immune systems with in the upcoming season.


“The current vaccine seems to be well matched to the influenza epidemic this year,” said David Boeh, professor of microbiology at California University of Pennsylvania. “That means the influenza vaccine will do a good job of protecting you against the viruses that are currently circulating.”


The holiday season is traditionally when the most people are exposed to the flu virus.


“I think it’s a combination of things,” Boeh said. “But I think the biggest factor that seems to play a role is as weather gets colder, people tend to spend more time inside than they do outside. There’s a greater chance of contact between people.”


People who say malls make them sick as a way out of getting out of holiday shopping may be on to something.


“Often, when you have people doing Christmas shopping, you go to malls and they’re full of people,” Boeh said. “If you go up to the outlets up by Meadow Lands, the parking lot is jammed. There are a lot of people doing shopping in one place during the holidays, and they’re often enclosed.”


If you’ve put off getting your yearly shot, department officials said it is best to get yourself vaccinated before exposing yourself to the busy holiday season.


“Now is the perfect time to get a shot,” said Gillis. “There’s still plenty of time to enjoy your holiday and not get grandma sick.”


The flu virus is spread in two ways. In addition to being spread through the air by people sneezing and coughing, the virus also is transmitted via shared objects such as telephones or bathroom handles. For this reason, it is especially important to wash your hands as much as possible during the flu season.


There are a number of clinics and stores offering flu shots in Washington County. A full list can be found at www.FluFreePA.com.


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