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Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Flu season
not packing
last year’s punch

The state epidemiologist
says the current strain is
responsive to vaccinations

By Anthony Sommer


This flu season is bad, but not as bad as last year's, says Dr. Paul Effler, state epidemiologist.

Little comfort if you're having trouble breathing and experiencing fever and aches and pains.

But it's good to know it's the same old familiar flu from last year: Influenza A H3N2, the "Sydney Flu." It's been around awhile, and the current flu vaccinations are effective in preventing it and new medications are helping to treat it, Effler said.

And it's even better to know the flu season in Hawaii peaks in January. So if you don't have it yet, the odds are in your favor and will keep improving. It looks as if it may peak a little early this year, according to Effler.

How bad is it? Except for a big spike Christmas week, when a number of elderly people in nursing homes came down with it, the flu track looks pretty normal, Effler said.

The numbers are reported by volunteer physicians who signed up for the Health Department's influenza surveillance program. The figures represent the percentage of flu sufferers among the doctors' patients for each week.

Generally, this time of year about 5 percent of primary health care physician patients are flu victims. The jump in cases last month briefly boosted the figure to 10 percent.

What Effler and fellow professional disease watchers find exciting about this year is that, for the first time in Hawaii, flu sufferers are being given simple laboratory tests to determine whether they really have the flu (rather than some other respiratory virus) and, if so, what kind.

Under a federal grant, doctors are sending nose and throat cultures to the laboratories they usually use. The labs conduct a new "rapid influenza diagnostic test" and the results go both to the doctor and the State Health Department.

The federal Centers for Disease Control look at Hawaii -- which receives 8,000 Asian visitors every day -- as a sort of influenza early warning outpost that is likely to be hit by new flu strains before they arrive on the mainland, Effler said. Whether existing vaccines are effective against a new strain of influenza probably will be determined first in Hawaii.

"Influenza is a seasonal disease and it goes around the world from winter in the Northern Hemisphere to winter in the Southern Hemisphere," Effler said. "In most places, it isn't found in the summer months."

With the new tests, Effler said he will be looking at his personal theory that Hawaii's unique geographical position and its popularity as a tourist destination means the state never is entirely flu-free.

"We have a large number of Australian visitors who come here in our warm summer months to escape the cold weather of their winter," he said. "It's the height of their flu season."

While there is anecdotal evidence that doctors in Hawaii treat flu cases year around, the new tests should provide some hard evidence, he said.

To check flu statistics, go to and click on "weekly influenza data posting."

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