Officials urge caution as flu outbreak claims six in Chicago

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According to data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year’s flu season is off to a quick start and so far it seems to be dominated by a nasty bug. | AP Photo

Six people have died in Chicago from a flu outbreak and a seventh person – a child – has died outside the city.

Both the Chicago and Illinois Departments of Public Health are urging people to do what they can to slow the spread of the virus reported to be widespread in 46 states, with Illinois among 26 states experiencing the highest activity.

The total number of adult flu deaths nationwide aren’t exact, as local and state health agencies are only required to report pediatric deaths to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But estimates place the number in the 2,000 range. The CDC says there have been 13 pediatric flu deaths nationwide.

This flu season hasn’t reach epidemic proportions but isn’t far off. An epidemic is when a percentage of people who have died surpasses a CDC threshold based on data from previous years, and the number of flu deaths this year is only 0.2. percent under the threshold.

While experts say the current U.S. vaccine is just 10 percent effective in preventing infection from the dominant H3N2 strain, they still urge those who haven’t gotten vaccinated to do so.

The benefit can be milder illness if one does contract the virus that is associated with such symptoms as fever, cough, runny nose, chills, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea. The vaccine takes two weeks to take effect.

The contagious respiratory illness can result in 12,000 (2011-2012 season) to 56,000 deaths (2012-2013) annually. Chicago has seen 65 intensive care hospitalizations for flu since Oct. 1, with 48 of those individuals over age 50.

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“Young children and the elderly are at greater risk for getting seriously will with influenza infections,” said Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julie Morita.

The Chicago Fire Department last week deployed additional “surge” ambulances on the street — despite the heavy overtime cost — to combat the outbreak. Several area hospitals have restricted patient visits as a result. The flu can be spread after coming into contact with someone as far as about 6 feet away.

This is the highest level of flu incidence statewide since 2009-2010, according to state officials.

“There have been a total of 135 influenza outbreaks. Last year, there were 11 outbreaks by this time last year,” state health department spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.

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