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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, January 23, 2005

Flu season light — so far

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Health Writer

Hawai'i is in the middle of what promises to be one of the mildest flu seasons in recent years, easing concerns caused by a nationwide vaccine shortage that has left some residents unprotected.

Fighting the flu

Stay home from work if you're sick; you'll protect others and feel better faster.

Party nicely — don't go to gatherings if you're sick.

Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Boost your immune system by getting lots of rest, eating healthy and limiting alcohol intake.

For information about the flu, call the Department of Health at 586-8300 on O'ahu or (800) 933-4832 from a Neighbor Island, or visit www.hawaii.gov/health.

Source: State Health Department

At what is typically the height of the flu season (mid- to late January), only 98 cases have been reported, according to the state Health Department's influenza surveillance coordinator, Tracy Ayers. That compares with a total of 531 confirmed cases for the entire flu season last year.

There has been a recent increase in cases, but they have been sporadic and fewer than in previous years, said Dr. Sarah Park of the department's disease outbreak and control division.

The danger of contracting the potentially serious illness hasn't passed, she cautioned. But, "we're doing OK so far. It's only been challenging as far as the flu vaccine shortage."

Since a nationwide flu vaccine shortage emerged in early October, health officials across the country have worried about the spread of influenza.

While many people think of flu as a nuisance or an inconvenience, the seasonal illness can be serious — even fatal. It is especially worrisome for the very young, the elderly and those suffering from chronic illnesses.

Nationally, most states are reporting similar relatively low numbers of cases, Park said.

"So far, knock on wood, we're having a mild-to-moderate season," she said.

Ayers said the Health Department is unsure whether the state has hit the peak of this flu season. The entire season runs from October to May. "This is probably the mildest season I've ever seen," Ayers said.

Park said the low case numbers are especially encouraging because the health department has worked with physicians to ensure that all cases are reported.

The state has given out all the flu vaccine it had targeted to the chronically ill, and people in nursing homes. Park said FluMist, a nasal spray vaccine, is still available to healthy individuals ages 5 to 49 and some doctors also may still have some conventional vaccine.

Despite the good news, Park urges people to take care to avoid the flu with good hand-washing, staying home when sick and other measures.

"Hand hygiene, hand hygiene, hand hygiene," Park said. "You prepare for the worst, but you hope for the best."

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.