Local doctors bracing for flu

December 10, 2003|HERB BROCK

Dr. Richard Hempel was checking out the Centers for Disease Control Web site Tuesday morning between patient appointments. What he saw was both amazing and alarming.

"I'm watching the CDC tracking the spread of influenza across the country and it has been moving steadily our way from Colorado and other Western states where there have been numerous flu cases," said the Danville family physician, like he was watching a fast-moving storm system on the Weather Channel. "In fact, it is here.

"Two weeks ago, there were no flu cases around here. Now, we're seeing an explosion of the first symptoms of the flu among patients, including sudden onset of aches and pains and high fever," Hempel said. "We soon may be seeing an explosion of full-blown cases."

But if a major outbreak develops, there will be little vaccine to prevent new cases created by the highly communicable disease. The Boyle County Health Department is out of the vaccine, and supplies are limited at other health departments and at doctors' offices.


"We gave a total of 3,200 flu vaccine shots this season, starting in October, and now we're totally out of the vaccine," said Roger Trent, administrator of the Boyle health department, adding that 3,100 flu shots were administered last year. Supplies have been used up at other area health departments as well.

"We contacted our supplier several days ago and asked for 100 more shots but they're out of them because major vaccine manufacturers are out of them," he said. "It's frustrating for everyone, especially now when there are a lot of people suffering flu-like viruses and there are a few who actually have the true flu."

Trent's parent agency, the state Department for Health Services, issued an alert Tuesday to health departments across the state recommending that if they have vaccine, or when they get new supplies, they should focus their vaccination efforts on people 50 years of age and older, six months through 23 months of age, and anyone with chronic illnesses that have damaged their immune systems.

As of Tuesday, the state health department's lab had confirmed 31 cases of the flu in the 13 counties. However, the department said there are many more cases that have been confirmed by labs at hospitals and doctors' offices.

Whether it's the flu or a virus that is flu-like, the bug has kept area hospitals, health departments and doctor's offices busy the last few days. For instance, scores of people with sore throats, congested chests and upset stomachs have been dropping by the emergency room at Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center in Danville.

"Our ER staff tells me there have been lots and lots of people complaining of flu-like symptoms, most of them having upper respiratory problems and gastroenteritis," said McDowell spokesperson Mary Begley. "Most of them have been treated and released but some, mainly the elderly and very young folks, have been admitted."

According to Hempel and a half dozen other area physicians, McDowell apparently is a microcosm of what's going on in the area as the vast majority of patients they have been seeing have had either upper respiratory viruses or viral gastroenteritis.

But real influenza is starting to surface.

Hempel said there have been some confirmed cases of flu at his office and also at the weekend walk-in clinic operated by local doctors at the office of Danville Family Physicians.

Most patients so far suffering from flu-like viruses

He said there is nothing close to an epidemic, and that most patients he is seeing are suffering other, so-called flu-like viruses that mimic the flu.

Nevertheless, he is concerned because of the spread of the disease across the country and the "fact that the flu can be lethal."

Symptoms of the flu, Hempel said, include sudden generalized aches and pains, a mild soar throat, a hacking cough, a headache, and a fever with the temperature in excess of 101 degrees. Particularly vulnerable patient populations include infants and babies, pregnant women, and older people, especially those with cancer and other chronic illnesses, he said.

"Anyone whose immune system is compromised is at risk," he said.

Hempel said treatment includes four antiviral drug regimen options, all of which care very effective - if they are employed early on.

"It's important to begin treatment within the first 48 hours from the time a person catches the flu," he said. "After that, the antiviral drugs involved in the regimens lose their effectiveness."

Like Hempel, Dr. Nick Dedman is concerned about the national spread of the flu and the fact that some cases have been confirmed in the area. Also like Hempel, the Harrodsburg family doctor is dealing mainly with patients who have viruses that manifest themselves with flu-like symptoms.

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