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Flu season mild so far

The Record-Eagle - 12/12/2018

Dec. 12--TRAVERSE CITY -- Influenza season is in progress in northwest Lower Michigan. Activity so far has been mild.

"There are some states that are showing some activity, but we did not reach the level of widespread influenza. Michigan is showing some activity," said Dr. Salah Qutaishat, system director of infection prevention for Munson Healthcare.

But the state's incidence of influenza is about on par with normal.

Influenza, or flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can cause mild to severe illness. Serious outcomes of flu infection can result in hospitalization or death.

Influenza should not be confused with viral (usually norovirus) gastroenteritis, typically called stomach flu -- a different illness that causes abdominal troubles.

The CDC has been monitoring the spread of respiratory influenza throughout the 50 states for years. Munson has created its own monitoring system, which breaks down reported data by ZIP code, for northern Michigan -- and it is operational this season for the first time.

"We actually developed a surveillance system for northern Michigan," said Qutaishat.

Munson's monitoring system shows that there are relatively few influenza cases in the region, he said.

Last winter's flu season was relatively mild. That's partly because the vaccination formula the medical community developed was effective. Qutaishat and doctors throughout the nation hope this year's formulation is equally effective.

Matching the mutation of the influenza virus is an annual puzzle. Sometimes researchers cannot accurately predict what mutation path the virus will take. When they miss the mark, as they apparently did in 2009, more people who were vaccinated still get sick.

The battle to predict the path of mutation is a struggle between the medical community's collective wisdom and the natural evolution of one of the planet's smallest forms of life -- the virus.

Qutaishat sometimes tries to explain the struggle between science and nature by noting that researchers get together each year to scientifically predict what influenza mutations are most likely to occur so they can create and distribute a vaccine -- but jokes that the viruses hold a meeting in Las Vegas at the same time and decide which strain to set loose on the world.

He uses the joke to illustrate that scientists get it right most of the time -- but that the simple microscopic virus sometimes mutates in unexpected directions.

"We humans assume that we're smarter than those tiny germs, but they seem to be ahead of us," Qutaishat said. "They continue to mutate to survive. We have the intellectual ability to defeat this tiny creature, but it continues to actually win that annual battle."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly updates information on its website (www.cdc.gov/flu) as it tracks activity across the nation. The most recent data there, from late November, shows that all but one state, Virginia, is seeing at least sporadic reports of influenza cases. Five states -- Oregon, Utah, Kentucky, Connecticut and Massachusetts, reported regional activity, which indicates more widespread problems.

The public's best defense against influenza is to get the annual vaccine. Even if the formulation isn't spot on, it still can reduce symptoms. Nearly all Munson employees -- a few cannot because of medical reasons -- have been vaccinated for influenza, Qutaishat said.

Qutaishat said that because of the influenza virus' ability to mutate, researchers have not been able to create a long-lasting vaccine as they have for some other illnesses, so an annual inoculation is required.

"The other thing that we're struggling with is that the level of acceptance in the population is not high," he said, for flu vaccination.

Influenza can be transmitted via close human contact, coughs or contaminated surfaces. Large gatherings enable rapid transmission because one person can infect many, who then spread the virus far and wide.

People who have influenza symptoms like a cough, sneeze or fever should avoid contact with others. People who want to avoid getting influenza should avoid contact with people who show symptoms. Everyone should wash hands frequently and thoroughly.

The CDC recommends routine annual influenza vaccination for all persons 6 months of age and older. Flu season typically lasts from October through May. It's not too late to get a vaccination.

Flu shots are available locally at many pharmacies, physician's offices and the Grand Traverse County Health Department, 231-995-6131.

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(c)2018 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

Visit The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.) at record-eagle.com

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