Greater numbers of patients are filling area hospitals and doctors’ offices complaining of flu-like symptoms, leaving health experts worrying about a potentially bad flu season in Galveston County, one of the hardest hit areas in the nation.
“At the rate we are going, by January, there will probably be a generalized flu epidemic throughout the state,” said Philip Keiser of the Galveston County Local Health Authority.
Galveston County Health District officials already have confirmed more than 1,000 cases of flu, compared to 138 during the same period last season and there are likely three or four times more cases that haven’t been reported, Keiser said.
Galveston County is one of the hardest-hit regions in the country this flu season, Keiser said.
More than two-thirds of all pediatric patients at the University of Texas medical Branch’s primary and specialty care clinic in Texas City over the past two weeks have been seen for influenza symptoms, said Matthew Hay, a pediatrician for the University of Texas Medical Branch.
Galveston County’s flu struggles are in line with a rising national trend of flu cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 13,400 cases of flu have been confirmed nationwide since Oct. 1, more than six times the number of cases were reported in the same time in 2016, according to the CDC.
“Typically, you see the worst cases in January and February,” Keiser said. “For us to see the numbers we are seeing in October and December could either mean flu season is coming and peaking early, which would be a nice thing. Or it could mean this season is going to be more severe.”
Several factors, including a more ineffective vaccine and an earlier flu season have contributed to the rising cases, Keiser said.
The current vaccine is effective against the predominant strain of influenza this year, H3N2, about 10 percent of the time, according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Health officials insist the vaccine is still important.
“We’re trying to get the timing right and get as many people immunized as possible,” Keiser said. “The more that are immunized and protected protect those who haven’t had the vaccine.”
Patients who get the flu but have received the vaccine report less severe symptoms than those without, Hay said.
The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to develop antibodies to fight infection, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Since the season came earlier than usual this year, Galveston County residents haven’t had the time to go get the vaccine and develop the protection they normally would, Hay said.
Although the spike in cases has health officials concerned and trying to immunize more residents, flu seasons do come in cycles, Keiser said.
“It was probably five years ago that there were so many flu cases that hospitals at UTMB were filling up,” Keiser said. “It was hard to find places to go, so many people were sick. Flu cycles this way. We’ve been fortunate the last four years haven’t been bad. But within those ebbs and flows, this is worse than it has been for several years.”