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Tampa Bay flu season heats up with outbreaks in Hillsborough schools

The county leads the state in flu outbreaks so far this season, prompting an official call for parents to get their kids vaccinated.

Flu season is here and Tampa Bay is already feeling under the weather.

While the number of cases is still relatively low across the state, the number of outbreaks so far this year is higher in November than in past seasons, health officials said. And Hillsborough County is seeing rising activity among school kids, prompting officials to send letters home with students.

“We’re seeing multiple outbreaks in schools right now, and we are strongly encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible,” said Kevin Watler, a spokesman for the health department in Hillsborough.

An “outbreak” is defined as three or more cases stemming from a particular location, like a school, child care center or assisted living facility.

So far this season, the state has seen 12 outbreaks of influenza, according to the Florida Department of Health. Hillsborough is leading the state with 10 total outbreaks since Sept. 29. Seven of those happened during the week of Nov. 3, Watler said.

RELATED: Tampa Bay may be facing a tough flu season

Influenza usually peaks between December and February in Florida, as holiday and snowbird travel begins to pick up. While rare, children and seniors do die from the flu every year.

“There’s a much higher chance of getting the flu around the holidays when people are traveling. That’s why we’re asking families to get your shot now, so when you’re exposed to it later on, you’ll have some immunity,” Watler said.

The United States is bracing for what could be an unusually busy flu season, with one of the indicators coming from Australia.

Just like the U.S., that country had an abnormally high flu outbreaks two years ago, followed by a lighter season this past year. So officials are taking note that, this year, Australians saw the flu arrive early and with a vengeance. Outbreaks there started in April. The U.S. flu season comes about six months after Australia’s as winter reaches the Northern Hemisphere.

RELATED: The future of the flu: Will we ever be able to beat it?

About 79,000 people in the U.S., including 180 children, died during the 2017-18 season because of the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 900,000 people were hospitalized, including many in Tampa Bay. Florida reported 515 outbreaks in all, and at least six child deaths from the flu during the season.

Last year’s flu season was much milder in comparison.

While multiple strains of influenza have been reported, it appears that influenza B is the most prevalent among local cases, said Maggie Hall, the spokeswoman for the health department in Pinellas County.

These numbers “should convince anyone not vaccinated yet to get their flu shot now for protection, especially as we begin the holiday season," Hall said.

GETTING THE SHOT:

The vaccine won’t necessarily prevent the flu, but it will help lessen the symptoms if someone catches the virus. It’s safe for anyone 6 months old or older, and a stronger dosage is recommended for patients 65 and older.

Local health departments are offering the flu vaccine at no cost for eligible children. Adults 19 to 64 are charged $30 and those 65 or older are charged $60.

HOW TO TREAT THE FLU:

If a person is experiencing severe symptoms, like trouble breathing, high fever, vomiting and general disorientation, they should go to a hospital emergency room. Early and mild symptoms such as a cough, sore throat and congestion, can be treated and diagnosed at an urgent care center.

Tamiflu is the most common prescription medication to treat flu symptoms, but it’s generally only effective if the flu is diagnosed in the first few days of experiencing symptoms.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new flu medication called Xofluza, which is a single-dose antiviral medication that can be prescribed to patients 12 years or older. Like Tamiflu, it is effective in patients who have felt sick for less than 48 hours.

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