Physicians Forecast Increase in Flu Cases During Media Call-In

As has been widely reported, 2014-2015 is expected to be more severe than the typical flu season. The Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED) and its member physicians understand the value of public awareness during this busy flu season.

With that in mind, PAMED hosted a media call-in on Dec. 22, 2014, to address this year’s flu season with Pennsylvania media, providers, and the public.

Participating in the call-in were Karen Rizzo, MD, FACS, otolaryngologist in Lancaster and PAMED president; Gus Geraci, MD, family physician and PAMED’s consulting chief medical officer; John Goldman, MD, an infectious disease specialist in Harrisburg; Mark Zonfrillo, MD, pediatric emergency physician in Philadelphia; and Todd Fijewski, MD, emergency physician in Pittsburgh.

Many of the physicians who participated in the call are already noticing an uptick in the number of flu patients they are seeing. “We are just beginning to see an increase in visits to the emergency department,” Dr. Fijewski said.

The state Department of Health estimates that 600,000 to 2.4 million Pennsylvanians get the flu each year, and between 120 and 2,000 people die from flu-related complications. To date, there have been four influenza-associated deaths in the state this season.

Why This Flu Season Is Expected to Be More Severe

According to Dr. Goldman, the predominant strain—H3N2—typically causes more severe illness, more hospitalizations, and more deaths. Additionally, he said flu viruses will change from year to year and “can evade your immunity.” This is what is meant by the expression “flu drift.”

The change in the H3N2 virus occurred more quickly than usual which made this year’s flu vaccine less effective. Generally, the flu vaccine is 70-80 percent effective; this flu season, the vaccine is expected to be 50-60 percent effective.

Learn more about drifted influenza.

Getting Flu Vaccine More Important Than Ever

Dr. Zonfrillo acknowledged that there are “still a lot of misconceptions about the influenza vaccine.” He and all of the physicians who participated in the call agreed about the value of vaccination.

Even though the overall effectiveness rate for the vaccine is reduced this year, the vaccine still offers protection. Even those who still get the flu following vaccination are likely to have symptoms that are less severe.

“If we would vaccinate a significantly higher number of people, the overall effectiveness rate would improve,” Dr. Fijewski said.

Other Practical Steps Provided by Our Panelists:

  • Wash your hands
  • Stay home—don’t go to work if you are sick. Keep your children home from school if they show signs of illness.
  • Avoid shaking hands when possible
  • Consider using a flu mask if you are caring for someone who is ill. Masks can be purchased at pharmacies or through medical equipment stores.

Dr. Geraci noted how important the prevention of transmission is in fighting disease. Lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic and addressed in his recent Quality and Value blog can be used during this flu season as well.

Bottom line: It’s not too late to get the flu vaccine or for physicians to encourage patients to get vaccinated. It takes about two weeks to develop full immunity following the flu shot. Dr. Goldman said a person who gets vaccinated now will still have protection for the peak of the flu season. Those who get the vaccine are still less likely to get the flu and, consequently, are less likely to spread the virus to others.

Dr. Rizzo stressed the importance of communication in fighting the flu. Pennsylvania physicians can subscribe to receive alerts through the Pennsylvania Department of Health Network (PA-HAN) in order to receive updates about the flu and other health issues.

PAMED will continue to monitor the latest developments and relay any new information as it becomes available.