The traditional peak of the flu season in Pennsylvania may still be a few weeks away, but UPMC doctors and emergency department personnel are starting to see an increase in cases, many of which are the 2009 H1N1 strain, formerly known as “swine flu.”
A. William Pasculle, Sc.D., director of UPMC’s clinical microbiology laboratories, has answers to some frequently asked flu questions.
Q. How is this flu season “shaping up,” and how does it compare to last year at this time?
A. There has been significantly less activity this year than last. Last year, flu came in like a lion the last week of December. This year is more typical, and it’s ramping up more slowly. Typically when it comes in like a lion, it’s over faster. When it comes in like a lamb, it lasts longer.
Q. Which strain of the flu are we seeing most often in w estern Pennsylvania, and is this one of the strains included in the flu vaccine?
A. We’re seeing the same 2009 H1N1 that everyone else is seeing nationally. It is included in the vaccine, so people who have received their flu vaccinations would have protection against it.
Q. There’s a lot of respiratory illness right now. How do I know if it’s the flu- or something else?
A. UPMC is the only hospital in the region that is using a test that detects most of the common respiratory viruses, and not just flu. This year to date, about 25 percent of our tests are positive for a common virus called respiratory syncythial virus (RSV). This is not unusual. We have not seen any of the several other respiratory viruses which may circulate at this time of the year.
Q. Is it too late to get a vaccine?
A. It’s almost never too late. Flu season often peaks at the end of January or beginning of February, but we can see cases of flu as late in the season as April or May.
Q. If I do opt to get a vaccine now, will I get immediate protection?
A. It takes about two weeks for the protective antibodies to form.
Q. Is there anything else you would want people to know about the flu this year?
A. The stories about the bad effects of flu vaccine are largely exaggerated and untrue. If you’ve ever had influenza, you’ll never want to have it again. It’s painful. Most people who think they’ve had the flu have not or they would remember the muscle and joint pains and the fever.