The first flu-related deaths of the season were reported this week in the Carolinas, and health officials in the two states agree -- influenza has arrived early.
North Carolinas State Health Director, Laura Gerald, said Thursday that two people have died from flu-related causes. According to several reports, both victims were in Forsyth County, although there is no indication they were related.
The same day, Linda Bell, South Carolinas interim epidemiologist, announced one death in the Palmetto State from the flu. The victim, she said, was a child from Barnwell County.
Our latest statewide activity report indicates that influenza has quickly reached widespread levels in South Carolina, Bell said. Flu activity typically peaks in February, and it is very unusual for us to see this number of cases so early in the season.
Gerald said North Carolina cases are on the increase. She said the number of positive flu tests recorded by the State Laboratory of Public Health has more than quadrupled since early November.
Influenza kills about 25,000 people and causes more than 200,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States.
At greatest risk, health professionals say, are young children, the elderly, and those with chronic health problems. Forsyth County health officials told reporters this week that one victim there was an older person with pre-existing health problems.
Both Gerald and Bell said the rising number of cases is another reason why people should get flu shots.
With flu cases on the rise in North Carolina, Gerald said, it is especially important for the public to take action to protect themselves and their families.
Bell said it takes the body about two weeks to build proper immunity after receiving a flu shot.
Influenza is a viral disease that causes headache, fever, respiratory symptoms and aches. It can worsen into bronchitis or pneumonia. Cases typically last several days to a week.
Influenza is different from gastrointestinal viruses, which last a few days and cause mostly stomach and intestinal problems.
Gerald said flu shots are recommended for anyone 6 months or older. But she said it is especially important for those at high risk of complications, including pregnant women, those with chronic illnesses, younger children, and the elderly.
Bell said this years flu virus matches well with the vaccine.
It is expected to provide good protection, she said.
In addition to vaccination, we strongly encourage citizens to prevent flu and other illness by covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands frequently with soap and water, and staying home when you are sick, Gerald added.
Those safety measures are especially important -- both for influenza and gastrointestinal illness -- during the holiday season. Many people will gather for parties and other social events. That is especially the case when food is involved, doctors say, because infected people can spread illness by touching food items.