CHARLESTON -- A spike in statewide flu cases has health officials warning people to get the vaccine available for the illness that killed five people in South Carolina between Nov. 25 and Dec. 1.
Since Sept. 30, there have been 5,922 confirmed flu cases in the state. Of those, more than half -- 3,387 -- were reported in the week ending in Dec. 1, according to figures from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
In addition, 131 people have been hospitalized for symptoms related to flu, according to DHEC.
"Flu activity typically peaks in February, and it is very unusual for us to see this number of cases so early in the season," said Dr. Linda Bell, interim state epidemiologist. The two latest statewide activity reports indicate that the flu has reached widespread levels in the state.
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Locally, however, prevalence of the virus seems only slightly higher than usual.
Beverly Yoder, infection prevention coordinator at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, said the hospital is treating flu cases about nine weeks earlier than usual, but it's too soon to tell if this year will be much different than normal.
"What I can say is that it is definitely higher than what we have seen last year," she said.
Frank Bowen, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine on Hilton Head Island, said the clinic has treated patients suffering from the flu and flu-like illnesses, but he hasn't noticed a dramatic increase.
With the exception of four schools, neither has the Beaufort County School District, according to student-services chief Gregory McCord.
Dr. Keith Borg, a Medical University of South Carolina emergency-medicine specialist, likened the beginning of flu season to the tip of an iceberg.
He noted the disease can be especially dangerous for the young, the elderly and those whose immune systems are weakened from other illness.
Typically, the flu lasts several days to a week. Anti-viral medicine administered within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms can shorten the course of the illness by about a day and prevent transmission to family members if they also take the drug, Borg said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported widespread flu in eight states, including South Carolina, for the week ending in Dec. 1.
"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, CDC director.
Vaccination is the best protection against the illness that claims thousands of lives annually, he said Monday in a conference call with reporters.
This is the earliest spike in flu cases in 10 years, Frieden said. The type of flu identified this fall, H3N2, is generally associated with more severe flu seasons, but the vaccine is well-matched to protect against it, Frieden said.
The flu can cause mild to severe illness. Symptoms can include a sudden onset of fever, dry cough, headache, muscle aches, tiredness, sore throat and nasal congestion or stuffiness.
Staff writer Brian Heffernan contributed to this report.
http://www.scdhec.gov/administration/news/2012/nr20121128-01.htm " target="_blank">South Carolina DHEC news release