By Susan Redden
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When it comes to the flu season in the Joplin area, there’s some bad news — but more good news.
Like the rest of the nation, the region is seeing an earlier start this year in reports of the flu. But local health officials say there’s time to head off the illness, because there is a good supply of flu vaccine available that is effective in preventing the strain of flu being reported.
In Missouri, the larger increases in flu cases are being reported in the east and southeast parts of the state, said Dan Pekarek, director of the Joplin Health Department.
“We’re a little ahead here, and statewide, it’s way ahead,” he said. “We’d certainly encourage people to get a flu shot, if they haven’t yet.”
Nationally, health officials said this week suspected flu cases have jumped in five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.
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 back then was the same one seen this year. Health officials say this year’s vaccine is a better match to the flu strain than nine years ago, and more of the vaccine is available.
Karen Watt, infection control officer for Freeman Health Systems, said the Joplin area is seeing “a steady increase in flu-positive cases.”
“The increase we’re seeing right now mirrors years past,” she said. “It’s nothing alarming, but it is a steady increase. We’re also seeing a little increase among the school-age population because they are in such close proximity to one another.”
Watt estimates fewer than 20 patients so far have been hospitalized at Freeman for the flu, which usually occurs in patients who have other risk factors, such as age, diabetes and heart disease.
Mike Eastman, emergency room physician at Mercy McCune-Brooks Hospital in Carthage, said he and his colleagues have not seen a large number of patients with the flu in recent weeks.
“We had some in late October and early November, then it died back off, he said. “It is earlier than what we’ve seen normally, and we anticipate we’ll be seeing more after the holidays.”
He said patients who can be seen by a doctor within 24 hours of getting symptoms can get medication that will reduce the severity and length of the illness.
“After that, you can only treat the symptoms, and people with chronic health problems are at higher risk,” he said.
Despite an early start to flu season, it is not too late to get a flu shot, both Watt and Eastman said.
“The best thing to do is get vaccinated; they can prevent it;” Watt said.
She and other health professionals also noted the vaccine is readily available, even at many local pharmacies.
Nearly 1,500 vaccinations have been administered by pubic health clinics in the Joplin area. The Jasper County Health Department has exhausted its supply after giving about 600 vaccinations, and the Joplin Health Department is nearly out, after starting with about 300 doses, Pekarek said.
“It’s still a good idea to get a flu shot because flu doesn’t normally peak until January or February. There’s time, and a lot of available places to get the vaccine,” he said.
The Newton County Health Department in Neosho purchased about 500 doses of flu vaccine and still has some available, according to Patti Yates, public health nursing supervisor. Inoculations are available at the department between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. weekdays.
Higher-than-normal reports of flu have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn’t happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations are also rising earlier than usual, and there have already been two deaths in children.
Hospitals and urgent care centers in northern Alabama have been bustling. “Fortunately, the cases have been relatively mild,” said Dr. Henry Wang, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Parts of Georgia have seen a boom in traffic, too. It’s not clear why the flu is showing up so early or how long it will stay.
“My advice is: Get the vaccine now,” said Dr. James Steinberg, an Emory University infectious diseases specialist in Atlanta.
An estimated 112 million Americans have been vaccinated so far, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches, and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.