The flu season has hit, and it's our old friend H1N1 taking the lead -- especially among adults under age 64.
Local hospitals and clinics are seeing the usual uptick in people seeking help for influenza, with an unusual number between the ages of 18 and 64. Usually influenza hits hardest among the elderly and very young children, but the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 -- then called the swine flu -- struck hard for all ages.
Marsha Wild at the St. Clair County Health Department said this year's flu season is "very similar" to that pattern, and the 2009 H1N1 virus is the strain most often seen so far.
"We are seeing that the 18-64 population is hit the hardest," she said.
While health officials do not track influenza the way they do diseases like AIDS, they do track deaths and admissions to intensive-care units relating to the flu.
St. Clair County has reported five ICU admissions at St. Elizabeth's and Memorial hospitals in Belleville, with no deaths.
Statistics for Madison County were not immediately available, but Anderson Hospital in Maryville said more than 40 percent of patients tested for the flu were positive in December, both at the emergency room and the urgent care centers.
"In my opinion, the very cold temperatures, the snow and school closings have played a major role in stopping the spread of the flu this year," said Doris Driscoll, infection control nurse at Anderson. "Folks have been staying home, thus stopping the spread of viruses -- not just the flu. We do need to stay vigilant, however. It is only January, and the influenza season could increase at any point."
At Gateway Regional Medical Center in Granite City, approximately 41 cases have been reported. Spokeswoman Erin Echelmeyer said that while confirmed statistics are not yet available, it is believed the average age of those hospitalized with the flu is about age 29.
As such, Gateway Regional is advising people not to bring children into their facility unless it is absolutely necessary. Staff members are asking people with colds and respiratory illnesses to postpone visiting patients, or to wear masks.
Statewide, there have been 371 ICU admissions and 27 deaths. Of those, 97 admissions and 14 deaths took place in a single week at the beginning of January. It was the most recent week for which statistics were available, according to Melaney Arnold of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The proportion of outpatient visits for the flu is more than double the expected rate, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, and the flu is classified as "widespread" in Illinois with more than 50 percent of districts reporting cases.
Nationwide, more than 3,700 people have been hospitalized due to the flu since Oct. 1, or 13.8 hospitalizations per 100,000 U.S. residents. Of those, 61 percent have been for people between the ages of 18 and 64, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Recently, Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis reported nine deaths from the flu at its hospital alone, all between the ages of 20 and 60, with dozens more in intensive care.
"We are promoting the three C's: clean, cover and contain," Wild said. "Wash your hands frequently, cover your sneezes and coughs, and stay home if you're ill."
It's also not too late to get a flu shot, officials said. The H1N1 virus was included in this year's batch of influenza vaccines, and while it takes about two weeks from the injection to provide immunity, flu shots are still available at Madison and St. Clair county health departments and area clinics and hospitals.
"Getting a flu shot is one of the best ways to prevent getting the flu," Wild said.
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2507.