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Flu finally raises its stuffy head in county

It's here.

The body aches, chills, sore throat, congestion and fever, also known as the flu.

The flu is now considered to be widespread in Pasco County, according to the Florida Department of Health. That simply means that three flu cases have been identified in a week by a select group of doctors tasked with tracking the flu each season.

"Calling it widespread is really a misnomer," said Dr. Marc Yacht, director of the Pasco County Health Department. "We've been at a low incidence of flu to date . . . but it's coming."

The numbers are collected nationally from a small percentage of doctors and then sent back to local health departments. Three cases qualify as widespread because not everyone goes to the doctor, and most doctors aren't asked to report cases. Officials figure if they have documented three cases, then "there are probably more out there," Yacht said.

Walt Conklin, 43, of Wesley Chapel didn't need the numbers to know the flu has arrived.

His wife and 7-year-old son had it about three weeks ago. Conklin, a barber, said he thinks he was able to fend off the bug because of his daily Vitamin C supplements.

He takes the pills every flu season because he comes in contact with a lot of sick people in his line of work. He estimates that at least 40 percent of his customers have told him they've had the flu.

"It's a hard one to shake," he said, adding that it kept his son out of school for about a week.

On Wednesday, Rose Proctor, the clinic assistant in the nurse's office at Seven Oaks Elementary School in Wesley Chapel, sent seven kids home sick.

"I don't know if it's the flu, though," she said, stressing that she doesn't make diagnoses. "It's stomach aches, fever, that sort of thing. Today, two of them had earaches . . . which all could be symptoms of the flu."

It has been nonstop in her office but not any more than usual, she said.

"That's just elementary school."

This year's flu strain is not considered a particularly tough one, Yacht said. "We're not seeing flu activity out of the ordinary," he said.

Also, the flu vaccine has been reasonably effective this year, he said.

It takes six months to make flu vaccines, and each year makers have to give it their best guess about which strains will be most prevalent.

The best time to get a shot is in late October or early November because it takes two to six weeks to develop the protective antibodies, Yacht said. That way a person is protected before the peak of flu season, typically around the first of the year.

But it's not too late to get a flu shot, as the season lasts through spring, he said.

Just don't go to the county Health Department for one. It's out, after dispensing about 8,000 doses, Yacht said.

However, many doctors' offices around the county reported that they still had flu shots left.

The Doctor's Walk-In Clinic in Land O'Lakes still has hundreds of doses, said Kathy Miller, the chain's director of nurses.

She said it doesn't look like it's going to be a tough flu year.

"I would say it's moderate," she said. "We were seeing more a couple of weeks ago than we are right now."

At Gulf Coast Medical Center in Port Richey, officials also reported few flu cases.

"The flu has not even begun yet from what we can see," said Lori Brienza, the facilities director.

The center still has flu shots left, too.

There is no way to track who has flu shots left because they're sold on the private market. That illustrates a big problem in public health, Yacht said.

"That can be frustrating," he said. "I really wish we knew what doctors have it so we could refer people who call us."

One last bit of advice: Don't listen to your mother. Contrary to popular belief, people who think they have the flu should go to the doctor, and quick, rather than just trying to ride it out.

There are antiviral drugs that have proven effective in treating the flu, Yacht said, but they have to be started within 48 hours.

Heather Urquides can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll free at 1-800-333-7505, ext 4613. Her e-mail address is hurquides@spttmes.com.

TIPS FOR FLU PREVENTION

+ The best thing to do is the simplest: Wash your hands.

+ Eat right, exercise and learn to manage stress. If you are in generally good health, your immune system is better able to fight off illness.

+ Avoid close contact with sick people, and likewise, stay home when you're sick and keep your children home from school when they're sick.

+ Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs are often spread when people touch something contaminated and then touch their eyes, noses or mouths.

Source: Florida Department of Health

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