Children, younger adults hit hardest
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
With one eye still on an anticipated resurgence of COVID over the upcoming winter, health officials across the state and nation are now forced to deal with the early arrival of what is already an active influenza season.
“This is the highest flu activity that we have seen this early in the season since the 2009 Influenza A/H1N1 pandemic,” Dr. Wes Stubblefield, pediatrician and District Medical Officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADHP), announced on the agency’s website.
There has been a significant increase in reports of outbreaks of influenza or influenza-like-illnesses (ILI) across Alabama, reported state health officials, who are preparing for a “triple-demic” of flu, Covid and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) this year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama is one of three states currently experiencing very high levels of flu activity. Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina are listed as having the highest number of influenza-like illnesses in the U.S. The southeast in general has been hardest hit, with minimal activity reported in New England and the northwestern parts of the country.
The group hardest hit so far has been children, who are the primary victims of RSV, which presents with cold-like symptoms and is usually almost as common as the common cold among the younger set.
Leah Fuqua, principal at Huxford Elementary School, said her school has seen an increase in flu-related absences among students and staff over the past two weeks. She added that school staff and faculty are working to prevent, or at least slow down, the spread of the viral illness.
“We have experienced a slightly above-average number of absences the last two weeks,” said Fuqua, who has 276 students under her care. “The flu has hit our school, but we are mitigating the effects of student and staff absences while continuing proper cleaning procedures to slow the spread. We are spraying disinfectant and increasing our cleaning procedures for high touch surfaces and high traffic areas in the school.”
Escambia County High School Football Coach Vincent Harris reported two weeks ago that five ECHS football players missed the Orange Beach game because of flu.
Efforts to determine how hard flu and flu-related problems have affected Atmore and Escambia County were unsuccessful, as officials of Escambia County Healthcare Authority and Atmore Community Hospital did not respond to a request sent a week ago for information.
The swift spread of influenza has resulted in a “rapid increase” in hospitalizations among children, according to health officials. So far this year, flu cases have reportedly outnumbered RSV cases at USA Health Children’s & Women’s Hospital in Mobile.
“Outpatient visits for influenza have increased over 10-fold between September and October and have shown no signs of slowing in the first five days of November,” Dr. Nola Ernest, an Enterprise pediatrician and president of the Alabama Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told al.com. “The highest number of outpatient visits for influenza-like illness are in young people, ages 5-24.”
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports that an average of 150 children across the United States die of flu and flu-related illnesses each year. However, the last time early influenza activity was this severe (in 2009), pediatric deaths reached 282.
Influenza can result in severe complications in persons of any age but is especially severe in young children. Most are hospitalized due to dehydration and difficulty breathing, but some suffer inflammation of the heart muscle, respiratory failure and inflammation of the brain.
“In the last few weeks, Children’s of Alabama has seen a surge of admissions with children who are critically ill from influenza and associated complications,” said Dr. Michele Kong, Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Critical Care Research Program at Children’s. “These have included those patients who have required ventilation and some so severe that ECMO (heart-lung-bypass) support was needed. We urge families to take the flu virus seriously and to ensure that their children and adolescents are protected.”
There are very specific actions that individuals and families can take to protect children against influenza, mainly vaccination.
Dr. Benjamin Estrada, pediatric infectious disease specialist at USA Health, said Alabama residents should not delay implementation of steps to prevent influenza infection.
“We encourage parents to take the necessary preventative measures to protect their children, themselves and others through strategies that we know are effective, including influenza vaccination for everyone older than six months, hand-washing, and mask-wearing in crowded environments or when someone is sick at home,” Estrada urged.