RALEIGH — North Carolina’s early descent into flu season may have an upside.
Fewer patients sought treatment at emergency rooms and clinics for flu symptoms last week, fueling speculation that the worst could be over.
“We are cautiously optimistic that the outbreak may have peaked,” said Zach Moore, medical epidemiologist with the N.C. Division of Public Health.
One flu death was reported during the week ending Jan. 5, bringing the total to 17 for the 2012-2013 season so far.
Flu rates hit their high point during the week ending Dec. 29, when slightly more than 9 percent of patients at clinics, doctors offices and emergency rooms reported having flu or flu symptoms. By Jan. 5, the figure had dropped to 5.6 percent, a significant decrease.
The reduction could have something to do with the fact that the season started early this year, just days after its official launch on Sept. 30, said Nicole Lee of the Division of Public health.
“We saw things happening a lot earlier than what is normal,” Lee said. “We usually don’t see a spike until January or February.”
Another possible factor is widespread treatment of patients with antiviral medicines, such as Tamiflu.
Antiviral medications reduce the “shedding” associated with flu viruses, making them less contagious, said John Holly, an internist at Wake Specialty Physicians at Brier Creek.
“There’s typically a 48-hour window, from the time symptoms begin, that it is recommended,” Holly said. “But if they’re somewhere close to that window and have factors that make them higher risk, we’ll go ahead and give it.”
In some cases, family members of high-risk people are given Tamiflu ahead of developing symptoms, as a precaution against contracting the illness, he added.
This year’s flu vaccine has proven to be reliable against the most common strain of flu, H3N2, Moore said.
Older people are known to be especially vulnerable to the H3N2 strain, Moore said, adding that 13 of the 17 deaths reported so far have been among people age 65 or older .
As North Carolina experiences a slight downturn in flu cases, many other areas of the country are reporting that the illness is still on the rise. The city of Boston declared a health emergency this week, and Chicago hospitals are reporting overflows of flu patients in emergency rooms.
This year’s flu season has popularized a number of electronic monitoring programs that track the outbreak, including www.google.org/flutrends/us/#US, which maps the presence of flu cases across the country, and Flu Near You, administered by the American Public Health Association and other partners, which has a smart phone app that allows flu tracking down to the neighborhood level.
Google flutrends now shows North Carolina in pink, while surrounding states are a deeper red, indicating heavier case loads.
But doctors here stress that we aren’t off the hook yet and that it’s still a good idea to get the flu shot if you haven’t had one.
“Even if we have hit our peak, we can still expect an elevated number of flu cases well into February,” says the N.C. health department’s Moore.