WHEELING - Health officials say flu season in West Virginia appears to be reaching its earliest peak in almost a decade, which means people could end up exchanging more than just gifts and good cheer this Christmas.
Flu activity in the state has increased 63 percent since last week, and the number of positive tests for influenza at West Virginia hospitals and the state laboratory increased from just five for the week ending Nov. 24 to 165 for the week ending Dec. 15. Not counting the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, those figures signal the virus's earliest peak in the state since the 2003-04 season, according to Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble.
"It is in the community; it is affecting people," he said.
File photo by Shelley Hanson
Those who have not received a flu vaccine this year are urged to do so, as West Virginia is seeing the virus peak earlier this year than it has since 2003.
According to Gamble, the early flu season combined with holidays like Christmas, which often bring large groups of people in close contact with one another, provide ideal conditions for the virus to spread.
"Once we gather as families, we begin to share not only fellowship and friendship but we also begin to share the viruses, and that's how it develops," Gamble said.
The best way to protect yourself, Gamble said, is to get the seasonal flu vaccine. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to reach its full protection level in one's system, but Gamble said there are things people who haven't been vaccinated can do to avoid getting sick.
"It sounds elementary, but it is ... simple protection measures such as washing their hands. ... If you're sick, of course, limit your contact with family members," he said.
The potential for flu to spread remains high in the weeks immediately following Christmas as people crowd into stores to return items and use gift cards they may have received, Gamble said, so he still urges people to get a flu shot if they have not done so.
Seasonal flu vaccines are available at the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, located on the first floor of the City-County Building, 1500 Chapline St., from 9-11 a.m. and 1-3 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays. The shot is offered to those 6 months of age and older, and anyone interested should call the health department at 304-234-3682 to make an appointment.
Gamble said the vaccine is quite effective against the strain of flu that seems to be predominant in the area this season.
"Right now the vaccine matches very well with what we're seeing," Gamble said. "There's not a reason not to get it."
It is recommended that everyone get a flu shot, but it is particularly important for pregnant women, children younger than 5, adults older than 50, people of any age with chronic medical conditions, those who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities, as well as caretakers and health care workers.