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Flu virus activity is showing signs of decline in Pennsylvania

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Flu season typically runs from early October through May, reports the Centers for Disease Control, which recommends people 6 months and older get annual flu vaccines.

Doctors suspect the worst of an ugly flu season might have passed in Pennsylvania, as new confirmed cases of the virus fell last week for the first time since November.

The state Department of Health recorded 5,392 definite flu cases for the week, down about 20 percent from the week of Dec. 29. Downtown-based UPMC reported a roughly 10 percent drop in flu cases at its hospital system, the largest in Western Pennsylvania.

The Allegheny County Health Department noted a dip, although it did not have exact figures tabulated.

“We’re hopeful that we’ve hit our peak and will see fewer cases each week now,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the county department.

Still, clinicians warned that declines in reported cases do not prove a decrease in actual sicknesses. Tested and confirmed cases represent only a small fraction of the annual flu outbreak, and doctors tend to test patients less often as flu season wears on.

“We’re not comfortable saying we peaked just yet. We like to see some consistency in the numbers going down,” said state health department spokeswoman Holli Senior.

The most intense flu activity in the United States tends to last about 13 weeks a year, often reaching a high point in February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. It estimates the country is about eight weeks into the 2014-15 season, which is on pace to rank among the most severe in a decade.

Confirmed cases in Pennsylvania since late September already top 25,000, just 3,000 cases shy of the figure recorded for the last 12-month period. They include at least 71 flu-related fatalities statewide, including seven in Allegheny County, where health authorities echo the CDC in urging the unvaccinated to get an annual flu shot.

The virus still blankets much of the country but might be easing in areas where it broke out earliest in the fall, such as the Midwest and southern states, according to the CDC. Prevalent viruses are hitting seniors especially hard, with 92 flu-related hospitalizations per 100,000 elderly people, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the agency director.

The CDC estimated Thursday that the flu shot’s effectiveness is 23 percent this season in preventing illnesses that require medical attention. Doctors said that’s down from the 60 percent range last season, when the shot was a better match for virus strains that were widespread.

Experts blame the decrease on recent mutations in dominant A-type flu viruses, which are now better equipped to overwhelm vaccine protection.

Even so, the shot can make symptoms less severe in patients who catch the flu, research shows. Plus, doctors say the vaccine formula is a solid match for B-type flu viruses that could flare later in the season.

“It’s the only tool we have in our box,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at the UPMC Center for Health Security. He encouraged vulnerable populations — such as the elderly and young children — to ask their doctors about antiviral treatments if they develop flu symptoms.

Everyone should maintain a guard against the virus, which will continue to circulate for another two months or so, said Dr. Mark Itskowitz, an internal medicine physician at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side.

“Patients shouldn’t think they’re out of the woods yet,” he said.

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or [email protected].

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