Michigan experiences early outbreak of influenza virus this seasonREED CITY – Flu season has hit Michigan early this year, but implications of the premature onset of the virus remain to be seen. Generally, the winter months from December through February are considered “flu season.” In the 2011-12 flu season, the greatest increase in patients seeking treatment for Influenza-like Illnesses (ILI) came in mid-February. The previous season, the hike came in late February. For the 2012-13 season, a drastic increase in the number of ILI hospital visits came in December; although that does not necessarily mean more people will be affected by the flu overall this year, said Dr. James Wilson, medical director of District Health Department No. 10. “Some of the states are in a full-blown pandemic, but we’re just building slowly,” Wilson said. He predicts an average or less-than-average overall flu season for 2012-13. Symptoms of the flu include rapid onset of fever, chills, nasal congestion, cough and significant body aches and pains. A cold, in contrast, is usually milder than the flu, with symptoms such as a runny nose. As of Dec. 22, 31 states were experiencing widespread cases of influenza, according to the Center for Disease Control. The CDC identified regional cases of influenza in Michigan. Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital began tracking cases of influenza this season on Sept. 1. The hospital has confirmed 12 cases as of Thursday. The hospital also tracks cases of Influenza-like Illness – which consists of a fever above 100.3 degrees and a cough and/or sore throat. In December, Spectrum Health family practices in Reed City, Evart and Tustin as well as the emergency department recorded 44 cases of ILI. The same departments saw 34 cases of ILI in December 2011 and only four cases in December 2010. February and March brought the highest number of ILI cases for Spectrum Health Reed City Hospital in 2011 and 2010. Reed City Area Public Schools were affected by this year’s flu season, with up to 460 students missing school the week before winter break due to flu as well as other factors. Mecosta County Medical Center in Big Rapids confirmed 54 cases of influenza in December, compared to one case in December 2011. A total of 57 cases of the flu have been confirmed by MCMC’s lab from July to December. Confirmed cases do not tell the whole story, said Tom Hogenson, public relations director for MCMC. Private practice doctors may not test to confirm an influenza virus once it is known the virus is circulating a community. “Once flu is out in the community, if somebody seems to be symptomatic the presumption is they probably have the flu,” Hogensen said. “They do not do confirmatory testing. ... You’re not going to treat if it’s type A or type B, you’re going to treat the symptoms.” Across the state, 252 cases of the flu were confirmed as of Dec. 27; the Michigan Department of Community Health defines flu season as beginning on Sept. 30. Three children and at least two adults have died this year from the virus, according to MDCH. In the 2011-12 flu season, there were 1,170 confirmed cases of the flu in Michigan, and no children died from the flu. In the 2010-11 season, there were 391 confirmed flu cases, and six children died from it. Dr. Stephen Frey, an emergency medicine physician at Mecosta County Medical Center, said taking personal responsibility for preventing the spread of the influenza virus is important. He recommended covering your airway when coughing or sneezing, washing hands frequently and cleaning communal surfaces such as countertops, doorknobs and phones. Vaccination also is an effective precaution, Frey said, and it is not too late to get vaccinated for this season. People older than 65 qualify for an enhanced flu vaccination. “Flu is a very significant virus,” he said. “The individuals who are most at risk for serious flu complications and health problems are the elderly, young children and children with underlying health problems.” Adults with pulmonary hypertension and other heart- or respiratory-related health issues also are considered high-risk for influenza complications, Frey added. High traffic areas in offices or at schools have potential to spread the virus to many people, Frey said, making it especially important to take personal precautions against the flu if exposed to those types of areas. A case of flu does not necessarily require immediate physician intervention, Frey said, recommending plenty of rest and over-the-counter medications as treatment. However, if anyone is unsure of the severity of their condition, he or she should contact a physician immediately, Frey added. Tamaflu, an antiviral medication that stops the spread of a flu virus, is effective at reducing the length of flu symptoms, Frey said. It must be administered within 48 hours of contracting the virus, and a prescription is required.