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Health Groups Get Ready for the Flu Season


With all the headlines over the American-Soviet summit talks, it seems almost fashionable that many Americans will come down with the Russian flu in this year's cold war.

But other influenza strains expected to appear in Orange and Los Angeles counties this year have an American ring to their names--Mississippi '85 A-H3N2 and the Ann Arbor '86 B viruses, according to Dr. David Petreccia, an Orange County internist specializing in infectious diseases. In addition, two other foreign strains are expected to surface: the Chile '83 A and the Taiwan A-H1N1 viruses, all dubbed by the locale in which they were first identified.

"Influenza is a serious disease which caused an estimated 40,000 deaths last year," Petreccia said. "It has an explosive nature and hits people very suddenly. A common cold is not the same as the flu, and you can usually tell the difference by the severity of the virus."

To prepare for the upcoming crop of viruses, some local hospitals and health clinics will be sponsoring programs to alert the public on what to expect this year. Petreccia is working with Placentia-Linda Community Hospital to encourage flu vaccinations before the season arrives in December.

"The flu season in Southern California doesn't hit until December and continues through March or April," Petreccia said. "This year, flu shots won't be available until the first of November.

"But we want to get people thinking about it and encourage them to take some preventive measures."

Avoiding the flu can be hit-and-miss, said Petreccia, due to the unlimited types of viruses. However, the most effective measure to avoid common flu types is to be vaccinated.

"The vaccine is about 75% effective," he explained. "You can mount a good antibody response to resist the strains you've been vaccinated against. Even if you become infected with a different strain of the flu, the vaccination can often reduce the impact."

There are some high-risk population groups who should be vaccinated each year, according to Lucille Murray, a nurse in the Orange County Public Health Department.

Anyone over the age of 65 is considered at high risk, she said. People with diabetes, chronic kidney and heart disease, leukemia and immune suppression diseases are also at high risk. Anyone working in health care fields where they are exposed to flu patients is considered at high risk.

"The impact of many flu viruses is hard, and many of the high-risk groups simply cannot tolerate influenza," Murray added.

Those who are not in high-risk groups should consider the vaccination, too, Petreccia said.

"Most young people will do all right (during flu season) because they have strong systems," Petreccia said. "For older people, a bout of the flu can be devastating. It certainly doesn't hurt for most people to be immunized."

18-to-72-House Incubation Period

The incubation period for the flu virus is 18 to 72 hours and most people are contagious during that time without realizing they have come down with influenza, Petreccia said.

"Flu epidemics are sometimes difficult to prevent, especially among those who have not been vaccinated, because you don't realize you have the flu until it's too late," he explained. "The contagious stage can last from four to six days.

"If someone in the household contracts the flu, the entire household will generally come down with it, unless they've been vaccinated."

Flu symptoms include a high fever, usually 101 degrees or more, muscle aches ranging from mild to severe and headaches. The cough and sore throat come after the incubation period, Petreccia said.

Amatadine, a drug used to treat type A influenzas (the most common) can be very effective in treating the flu bug if prescribed within 48 hours after catching it.

"The drug prevents the material in the virus from getting into the system," Petreccia said, "but doesn't work if it's a full-blown case of the flu. If people hear that the flu is going around, and they are suddenly hit with flu symptoms, see someone immediately about the drug."

Standard Treatment

Once the flu is raging throughout the system, Petreccia said, there is very little to do except to ride it out.

"It's the standard 'drink plenty of fluids, get plenty of rest and call me in the morning,' " he said. "Aspirin will reduce the fever. Do not give aspirin to children or teen-agers--give them aspirin substitutes" (due to studies linking aspirin with Reyes syndrome--a liver disease).

Those in high-risk groups can contact the county health departments in their area after Nov. 1 for information on flu shots. For the rest of the population, Petreccia advises contacting the family physician.

The flu should not be taken lightly, Petreccia warned. While the flu season is still a few weeks off, a little prevention now may spare people a lot of aches and pains later.

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