Colorado has been hit hard by the flu epidemic sweeping the country this winter. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), nearly 2,400 Coloradans have been hospitalized with the flu this year, the highest number since the state began tracking flu statistics in 2004.
“In our office, the majority of the flu cases we have seen have been an influenza A strain,” Dr. Mike Simones, a pediatrician with Partners in Pediatrics, wrote in an email. “The H3N2 virus can be more virulent and cause more significant illness in some people.”
That was certainly the case for the Downham family.
“The flu is horrible and it hangs on,” Melissa Downham said, noting that her 4-year-old daughter, who tested positive for influenza A, was actively ill and feverish for about three days, but sluggish for more than a week. “She was hoarse with a cough for three weeks.”
Downham’s husband also contracted the flu. “They felt awful. Keith missed two days of work, which he has never done in the 11 years we’ve been married.”The Downhams are one of many local families felled by the flu.
“We all had the flu,” said Stapleton resident Anna Bangert, adding that the illness—characterized by a fever, aches and a persistent cough—struck her, her husband and all four of their children, ages 7, 6, 4, and 9 months. The flu lasted three to five days in the kids, but stuck around longer for her and her husband, most likely because they were acting as caretakers, unable to adequately rest and recover, she said.
With so many kids getting sick, the flu has been spreading in local schools, with some harder hit than others. McAuliffe International School had nearly 150 absent at one point this fall.
“School nurses did elevate concerns regarding student absences at several schools,” according to a statement from Denver Public Schools. But “in most cases, the rates were typical of flu season.” The winter break seemed to help slow the flu’s spread, DPS added, noting that in January, “reported student absenteeism rates are down compared to the period before the break.”
Westerly Creek Elementary School has been one of the schools with a more “typical” flu outbreak. The school has seen “a lot of strep, flu and a stomach bug,” said health paraprofessional Lauren Goodwin. But despite being a similar size to McAuliffe, with more than 700 students, Westerly Creek hasn’t been hit as hard with the flu. “Our parents are really great about keeping kids at home when they’re sick,” Goodwin said.
Children who contract the flu should stay home until they are fever-free for at least 24 hours, pursuant to CDC guidelines.
Dr. Simones said the best protection against the flu is prevention. “The CDC urges most everybody 6 months of age and older to get a yearly influenza vaccine. … Even if you still get the flu, the vaccine may help you become less ill and recover faster.”
When asked why she chose to get a flu shot, resident Gabby Vargas-Benson said “peace of mind.” What began as a requirement for her job continued as a good habit, she said. “I have not had the flu in over a decade.”
Dr. Simones noted that the vaccine helps protect against three to four strains of flu. Unfortunately, this year’s dominant H3N2 strain is a poor match for the annual flu vaccine. That helps explain why even many vaccinated families, like the Bangerts, have been getting sick.
Vulnerable populations have been hit especially hard. In long-term care facilities in Colorado, there have been 94 outbreaks, according to the CDPHE. That’s nearly double the number of outbreaks in more typical years. For every outbreak in those facilities, 33 percent of residents will present with flu-like symptoms, 14 percent will be hospitalized, and 6 percent will die.
Along with the elderly, children under age 5 and pregnant women are high-risk groups, most likely to get seriously ill. A study published in the January issue of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that of pregnant women who were hospitalized as critically ill with the flu, 25 percent died.
“Pregnant women are more likely than their non-pregnant counterparts to have severe symptoms associated with the flu virus,” said Dr. Katie Rustici of Stapleton OB/GYN, noting that a severe flu can induce preterm labor and delivery.
“Any woman who is pregnant during flu season should get a flu vaccine,” Dr. Rustici emphasized, noting that the vaccine is safe during pregnancy. “Vaccination has two beneficial effects in a pregnant woman: it protects the patient herself from getting the flu and it provides passive antibodies through the placenta to protect the baby, which is important after delivery since babies are also a high-risk population and too young to receive the vaccine themselves until they are 6 months old.”
Both Dr. Simones and Dr. Rustici stressed that basic prevention, like hand washing and avoiding those who are actively ill with the flu, can help curtail its spread. They also emphasized that anyone who suspects that they might have the flu should call their doctor as soon as possible for treatment.
“It always a good idea to consult with your doctor,” Dr. Simones said.