Two die of flu in Aiken County

Dr. Meeta Khan wears a face mask as she examines a respiratory patient at the Rush University Hospital emergency department on Thursday in Chicago.

A combination of factors has led to a particularly problematic influenza season across the nation and in South Carolina where more than 20 flu-associated deaths have been reported, two of which were in Aiken County.

Enough cases of flu and flu-like illnesses have been reported in the state that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has classified influenza activity as “widespread,” joining 39 other states with a similar level of activity.

Since Dec. 30, Aiken County has reported 20 positive rapid flu tests. Close to 35,900 positive rapid flu tests have been reported throughout the state since Sept. 30.

Statewide, there have been more than 1,000 flu hospitalizations since September, 198 last week alone. There have been a total of 22 flu-associated deaths since September with three deaths reported last week.

In the same period last year, there was only one flu-associated death, according to SCDHEC spokesman Jim Beasley.

About 10,000 suspected influenza cases have been reported in the United States this flu season. Of those, almost 3,000 have been confirmed as positive for an influenza strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A public health emergency has been declared in Boston, where 18 people have died.

“This season is about the worst I've seen in years,” said Dr. Fredric Woriax, an internal medicine physician with Margaret J. Weston Medical Center.

Several factors are believed to contribute to the severity of the season, he added, including the unusually early start of the season, the strength of the predominant influenza strain, and the large number of the population who are not vaccinated or who wait to get vaccinated.

Flu activity typically peaks in February, so health officials are concerned that a large number of cases have been reported early on.

The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years with more than 48,000 deaths. The dominant type of flu then is the same one seen this year.

The predominant strain is H3N2, which was also the predominant strain last year.

“When H3N2 is the predominant strain, we have a larger number of cases,” Beasley said. “With H1N1 (swine flu), the number of cases is considerably smaller.”

Last year's flu season was considered “extremely a-typical,” according to SCDHEC. In fact, CDC reported last year's season set a new record for the lowest and shortest peak for influenza-like illness since its surveillance began.

Beasley said this season is possibly the most severe in a decade. “Get vaccinated. I don’t know that I can say it any simpler. It just makes good sense to protect yourself," he said.

Flu shots are available at many physicians' offices, health clinics and pharmacies.

“I highly recommend that those who are 65 or older, pregnant women, and those with chronic health problems like diabetes and COPD should be on the front line to get vaccinated,” Woriax said. “We do have a lot of vaccines.”

The shot takes at least seven days to be effective, so it will not protect those who already are ill with the flu.

Flu symptoms to be on the look out for are fever, nasal congestion or stuffiness, dry coughing, body aches, and general lethargy and malaise.

The best ways to prevent the spread of flu are to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash hands often and thoroughly and stay home when you are sick.