The outbreak of influenza in Ohio is considered widespread, the highest possible level, while its intensity is bordering on moderate to high in Franklin County as of January.

Columbus Public Health and the Ohio Department of Health are encouraging residents to protect their health and prevent spreading the flu by getting vaccinated, washing their hands, covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing and staying home when sick.

The flu is usually spread by someone coughing or sneezing.

"In general, all local flu activity indicators are up, especially lab positives, hospital (emergency department) visits and influenza-associated hospitalizations," said Kelli Newman Myers, public relations specialist for Columbus Public Health.

"The increase in local flu intensity appears to be sooner this year, compared to the past two flu seasons."

Seasonal influenza can cause fever, headache, a feeling of tiredness, cough, sore throat, nasal congestion and body aches.

Russ Kennedy, communications director for the Ohio Department of Health, said new flu-associated hospitalizations shot up from 228 the week ending Dec. 16, 2017, to 554 the week of Dec. 17-23, 2017, compared to 59 for the same time during the previous flu season.

He said Ohio is reporting 2,104 flu-associated hospitalizations for the 2017-18 flu season, compared to 369 for the 2016-17 season.

Schools monitor cases

Although flu numbers are up this year, two local school districts report student populations don't appear to be following that trend.

Dr. Beth Brant, a Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools nurse, said she and her colleagues haven't seen much in the way of confirmed cases within the district.

"Unfortunately, there are many variables that make it difficult to be sure that is accurate, though," she said. "It could be that there were some cases that occurred over break, could have had cases that we were not notified of, or it could also be that they were not officially tested/swabbed."

Collectively, the district's nurses only know of five cases, which included two staff members.

"I really thought we would see an increase, given the amount of travel and family togetherness over the holidays, but not so far," Brant said.

"I also work at Mount Carmel East hospital and I can tell you that we have seen an increase there in the last couple weeks," she said.

Before the holidays, Brant said, the hospital saw quite a bit of a stomach virus.

"Many people mistakenly call that the 'flu,' but that is not true influenza," she said.

Brant said the best way to avoid influenza and prevent its spread is to get the flu shot and to wash hands frequently.

Within Gahanna's schools, students must stay home or they will be sent home if their temperature is over 100.

Brant said other important tips include: keeping your distance from others who are sick; cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched areas at home and work, especially when people are sick; getting plenty of rest; drinking lots of fluids; and eating nutritious food.

"In other words, keep healthy so your immune system can fight off any illness," she said.

Greg Viebranz, executive director of communication and technology for the Westerville City School District, said the district's health and safety services office polled the schools' nurses.

"They have reported that they have not noticed an increase in diagnosed flu cases during the 2017-18 school year, as compared to this time last school year," he said.

Unpredictable problem

While the flu breaks out and spreads every year, Newman Myers said, the timing is unpredictable.

She said seasonal flu activity can begin as soon as October and November and run to May.

Flu activity most commonly peaks between December and February, Newman Myers said.

The level of flu activity in Ohio was elevated from regional to widespread in mid-December.

During last year's flu season, Ohio didn't reach a widespread geographic spread until mid-January.

The Ohio Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot, as vaccination is the best protection against seasonable flu viruses.

It takes about two weeks for a flu shot to take full effect.

Despite the benefits of flu vaccination, during this flu season roughly three out of five people in the United States, including roughly two out of three pregnant women, have not been vaccinated, according to the CDC.

"Pregnant women and their young infants are at high risk for serious complications from the flu," said Dr. Clint Koenig, medical director of the Ohio Department of Health, in a press release.

Flu surveillance data in Australia, where flu season is winding down, suggests this year's vaccine has been significantly less effective against one circulating strain, influenza A(H3N2). However, the CDC notes vaccine effectiveness measured in Australia might not predict what will happen in the United States.

"No vaccine is 100 percent effective, but there are many reasons to get a flu vaccination," Koenig said. "Flu vaccination prevents millions of illnesses and tens of thousands of flu-related hospitalizations each year in the U.S."

Although most people fully recover, some experience more severe illness such as pneumonia and respiratory failure, and the flu can sometimes be fatal.

Flu vaccines are offered by many doctor's offices, clinics, health departments, pharmacies and college health centers, as well as many employers and some schools.

More information about influenza and flu activity in Ohio is available at flu.ohio.gov.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla