Beaufort News

Minor rash of flu begins; plenty of vaccine available

Flu season revved up in South Carolina and Beaufort County last month.

The number of confirmed cases increased across the state during the third week in December, but remained below last year's H1N1-fueled pandemic.

There were 35 positive rapid flu tests Dec. 19-25 in Beaufort County, and 810 statewide, according to recent statistics from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

There were 987 positive tests across the state in the previous 10 weeks of the season, which began in October.

The incidence of flu is minor compared to a year ago. This time last year, more than 19,000 positive tests had been reported, which raised concerns about the shortage of swine flu shots.

This year's version of the vaccine protects against the H1N1 strain, referred to as swine flu, as well as others, and is readily available at health clinics, pharmacies and doctors' offices, said Nick Davidson, preparedness director for the Beaufort County Health Department.

"We have more than enough vaccine to handle demand," Davidson said. "We have at least several hundred doses on hand at any point in time. We would always pull from our statewide network if we needed more of the vaccine."

The recent rise in confirmed cases underscores the need for people to get shots, wash hands often and cover their mouths when coughing to prevent the spread of flu, Davidson said.

Most of the lab-confirmed cases in the state have been H3, a common strain of Influenza A, not the less common H1N1.

The number of hospitalizations for flu in the state also rose in the third week of December -- the last week reported -- with 23, compared to 43 in the previous 10 weeks.

Davidson said there have been three hospitalizations in the four-county DHEC Region 8, which includes Beaufort County.

Four people in South Carolina have died of flu or flu-related illness this season. None was in Beaufort County.

Because confirmed cases of H1N1 have not been as prevalent in the state and county this year as compared to last, fewer people are getting vaccinated, which has health officials concerned.

About 1,600 flu vaccinations have been given out this season in the region by the local health department. About 1,000 of them were in Beaufort County, Davidson said.

Last year, about 4,900 seasonal flu shots were given region-wide. That was in addition to 35,000 H1N1 shots -- about 20,000 of which were in schools, because children were most susceptible, he said.

About 2,800 seasonal flu shots were given across the region in 2008.

"This year we haven't seen the H1N1 virus significantly impacting people," Davidson said. "Now that we're back to the regular old flu, there is less concern in people's mind. But the flu or flu-related illnesses kill 36,000 people a year on average, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The flu is still deadly. And the best way to protect against the flu is getting the vaccine."

It is estimated 10 percent of South Carolinians -- about 40,000 -- will contract the flu by the end of the season, based on previous years' data from the state.

Though it takes one to two weeks for the vaccine to begin protecting against flu, it's not too late to get a shot, Davidson said. The flu typically peaks for a month or two each winter and sticks around for a couple of months after that, he said.

"It looks like we have not reached our peak. We are still seeing an increase," Davidson said.

The (Columbia) State newspaper contributed to this article.