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Flu bug ramps up, but too early to predict season’s severity

Richard and Alissa Kanowitz hold a photo of

Richard and Alissa Kanowitz hold a photo of their late daughter, Amanda, at their Scarsdale home on Nov. 3, 2017. The couple founded a nonprofit organization, Families Fighting Flu, after their daughterdied of the virus in 2004. Credit: Richard Harbus

A flurry of flu viruses and other respiratory pathogens that cause seasonal misery already are circulating on Long Island and elsewhere in New York — with the influenza bug potentially the most potent.

Flu trackers said it still is too early to forecast what type of flu season will emerge locally, although aggressive — and fatal — influenza activity has occurred this year below the equator.

The Southern Hemisphere, where influenza season runs from April through September, sometimes is a harbinger of what lies ahead in the Northern Hemisphere. Flu season here generally occurs from November through April.

Australian health authorities said this year’s flu season has been one of the worst on record, with 215,280 confirmed cases — more than twice the number of 2015, the previous worst season for influenza there. About 500 Australians died of the flu this year.

A similar saga unfolded in Hong Kong, where flu season tracks with the Southern Hemisphere. So many people were sick in July that Hong Kong hospitals were running out of beds, the South China Post reported.

U.S. health experts said the season elsewhere is not necessarily a predictor of what will happen here.

“The only certainty about flu season is uncertainty,” said Dr. Matthew Zahn, chairman of the public health committee for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, an organization of physicians, scientists and other health care professionals who specialize in contagious disorders. “Flu activity is low so far, but exactly what our season will look like is a story that has yet to be told.”

Mild season or aggressive, Zahn said vaccination is a good idea.

Manhattan lawyer Richard Kanowitz agrees and is urging the public not to take chances with guesswork about the flu season. Current low-level spread doesn’t mean it’s easy to escape infection.

In retrospect, he said, he and his wife, Alissa, wish they had gotten their daughter, Amanda, vaccinated 13 years ago. The child was 4 1⁄2 when she caught the virus that led to her death.

“We believe that had our daughter been vaccinated she would have handled the virus better and would not have died of the flu,” said Kanowitz, 50, a native of Oceanside who now lives in Westchester County.

“It’s like belonging to a club that no one wants to join, to lose your child to a vaccine-preventable disease,” said Kanowitz, who along with his wife founded Families Fighting Flu, a nonprofit aimed at protecting children from the complications of influenza.

Kanowitz, who is president of the organization, said he realizes there are parents who shun vaccines of all kinds. But they should consider the flu inoculation’s benefits, he said, noting that it is safe and saves lives.

Aware of the excessive number of flu cases elsewhere in the world, Kanowitz said this year’s Northern Hemisphere flu season arrives on the cusp of a grim milestone: the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic. An estimated 50 million people worldwide were killed in the globe-circling outbreak, the worst influenza season ever recorded.

“Most of the people who died in 1918 were young,” Kanowitz said.

At the state laboratory, Wadsworth Center in Albany, experts define the level of influenza activity in New York as sporadic — low-level spread. Laboratory-confirmed cases have been reported in Nassau and Suffolk as well as 21 other counties and New York City, the state Health Department’s flu map shows.

There were 76 laboratory-confirmed reports of influenza in the state during the week of Oct. 21, the most recent with complete statistics. Thirty-two people were hospitalized for the infection, a 78 percent jump over the previous week, according to the state’s Weekly Influenza Surveillance Report.

Circulating A and B strains of the flu have been identified statewide in samples from patients.

That data, though comprehensive, is not strong enough to predict the impending season. Flu forecasting is an imprecise science fraught with multiple variables, said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside.

“It’s like weather forecasting. You know hurricane season is coming, but you don’t know what the storm will be like until it starts to develop,” said Glatt, a specialist in infectious diseases.

What’s most important, he said, is not to fall for the hype of advertisers who have downgraded the flu’s severity to secondary status during cold and flu season.

“People somehow associate the flu with a runny nose, fever and not feeling well,” he said. “But for a small and significant percentage of the population, it is a serious infection and can be fatal. So yes, I am very concerned about the public’s perceptions.”

Earlier this year, in a poll of 600 residents of Long Island and the greater New York metropolitan area, Glatt’s hospital found that about one-third of respondents acknowledged going to work with the flu.

Although more than 90 percent of the survey’s participants said they were well aware that influenza is spread person to person, they worked sick anyway, suggesting two disturbing factors: avoidance of vaccination and nonchalance about spreading a highly contagious infection, he said.

Protections against flu

Vaccination is the strongest defense. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months and older.

Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes.

Practice good hand hygiene, with frequent handwashing and use of a hand sanitizer, which helps limit transfer of pathogens to your face.

Cough or sneeze into a tissue and properly dispose of it. If tissue is not available, cough into your sleeve.

Prescription medicine can prevent flu if taken within 48 hours of initial flu symptoms.

Stay home when you are ill.

Sources: Dr. Debra Spicehandler, Dr. Aaron Glatt, CDC

Flu viruses fluctuate in severity from one season to the next, with epidemic years having the most disease. These estimates reflect ranges in mild to epidemic seasons in the U.S. since 2010:

Illnesses: 9.2 million to 35.6 million

Hospitalizations: 140,000 to 710,000

Deaths: 12,000 to 56,000

Pediatric deaths: 113 (average per year)

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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