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Dr. Bhagyashree Shastri, right, gets a flu shot at Aiken Regional Medical Centers. Shastri has been giving talks to the Aiken community about the advantages of getting a flu shot.

A spike in flu-related hospitalizations and deaths across the country has been widely attributed to an unusual strain of the virus, influenza B/Victoria.

Dr. Gerald Gordon, an infectious diseases specialist at Internal Medical Associates of Aiken, said this B strain is "very serious."

"We've had some deaths in this area from complications of influenza, which can be bacterial," Gordon said. "But you can also die from influenza ... It's not a benign disease. It's a pretty tough disease for many people."

Gordon, who also accepts patients at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, said the flu usually comes in "waves," or spikes of activity, though the severity and exact timing can be hard to foresee.

"Each year, one cannot predict the intensity," Gordon said. "In Australia it was a pretty aggressive year, and sometimes when you see something in the Southern Hemisphere, it predicts what's going to happen in the Northern Hemisphere, and that's exactly what we're seeing."

The CDC has reported elevated flu activity for eight straight weeks. According to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's most recent flu watch report, flu activity in the Palmetto State has begun to decrease slightly, though overall activity remains significantly above the state baseline and may spike at least once more before flu season ends in May.

Dr. Bhagyashree Shastri, another infectious diseases specialist at Internal Medical Associates who also does work at Aiken Regional, said other strains of the virus are likely to become more common as the season wears on.

"We expect the H1N1 strain to start peaking," Shastri said.

Shastri said the majority of flu pediatric cases she and Gordon are seeing in Aiken have stemmed from the influenza B. Part of why the virus has infected so many people, she said, was because influenza B rarely appears this early in the flu season. According to the CDC, the B strain hasn't been dominant in the U.S. in 27 years.

"We were not expecting influenza B at all," Shastri said. 

Both Aiken doctors emphasized the importance of getting a flu shot, which can provide protection against influenza B.

The flu shot, Gordon said, is not a complete guarantee against contracting the flu – but it does lower the risk of catching it and can also greatly shorten the virus' duration and severity if contracted. It also lowers the risk of death from flu-related complications.

"I think there's several issues the public needs to be aware of," Gordon said. "The flu shot does reduce death. It may not prevent all influenza, but it does clearly reduce morbidity and mortality ... Sometimes, it's the younger person who gets the flu shot who protects the older person who may not have as good an immune system. And if younger people, especially kids, are getting the flu shot, the possibility of transmitting it to older people gets to be somewhat less."

Gordon also warned that it is possible to catch the flu multiple times in one season due to the virus' mutability – something he said is much less likely to happen to people who receive the vaccine. 

"There are probably four strains of influenza that are circulating at any time," Gordon said. "Just because you get influenza once doesn't mean you can't get it two or three more times during that season."

Gordon said the flu can have an elevated risk of serious complications for people with underlying conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes. This is a concern in the area, including Aiken, where American Heart Association data indicates the diabetes rate is above the national average.

Shastri and Gordon said patients can still seek a flu shot at pharmacies and medical facilities, and those who exhibit symptoms should seek help immediately. 

Shastri said that some influenza B/Victoria patients have been exhibiting unusual symptoms, such as headaches and sneezing without running a fever (flu symptoms usually include fever) which is causing some patients to mistake their symptoms for sinus problems.

For some people, the trouble begins before symptoms even appear, which is why general hygiene, such as covering coughs and washing hands, are so important to limiting the spread of the virus.

"Children can spread it up to four days before they're symptomatic," Gordon said.

"People shed (the virus) up to seven days or longer after an acute episode," Shastri said. 

For more info about the flu, visit cdc.gov.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.