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Sneezes in the Breeze : Colds and Flu Are Making an Early Entrance

Times Staff Writers

Allis Killy stuck it out until the end of morning recess Tuesday, when recurring flu-like symptoms finally benched the almost-8-year-old.

“My stomach felt real heavy,” said Allis, a second-grader at Alderwood Elementary School in Irvine. “I had a real big temperature last week, and I feel like maybe it’s back.”

A loose-leaf notebook on the counter of the school health office told the rest of the story: a scrape here, a bloody nose there, and page after page of stomachaches, sore throats, headaches and fever reports.

“I’ve never seen so many flu and cold cases so early in the year,” said Sally Snyder, a registered nurse and health services coordinator for the 19,500 students of Irvine Unified School District, which includes Alderwood. “There’s something spreading around. I just take temperatures and tend upset stomachs. I’ve been busy.”

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The sneezing season has hit early this year in Orange County, striking children and adults with the scattershot pattern of a shotgun blast. While county health officials say it’s too early to identify the culprit, school and business officials can point to a growing number of empty desks as evidence of a virulent bug.

“Our health services department is noticing an increase (in workers absent because of illness) in the last two weeks,” said Sheila Carter, spokeswoman for McDonnell Douglas in Huntington Beach. About 7,000 workers are employed at the manufacturing plant.

“About 20 a day on our first shift . . . have complained of sore throats, cough, as well as stomach problems,” Carter said. “Others are out sick. It’s unusual for this time of year.”

Shirley Hunt, secretary at Wagner Elementary School in Placentia, described the malady in terms any parent can picture.

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“I had a girl throw up in my office yesterday. It was a mess,” Hunt said. “But it’s not an epidemic yet. That usually comes in November or December.”

Colds and flu-like symptoms typically follow cooler temperatures and the start of the school year, when youngsters, after a summer of healthful outdoor play, get together and exchange germs. This year, reports of sniffles and fever are up somewhat, despite the recent record-setting heat wave, said Dr. Thomas Prendergast, epidemiologist for the Orange County Health Department.

“It’s usually the way things appear . . . initially in the school year,” Prendergast said Tuesday. “Respiratory diseases go up, but not necessarily the flu. There are a lot of colds, (and) some people mean colds when they say the flu.”

Prendergast said it is difficult for the department to immediately document outbreaks of an influenza virus because laboratory cultures and blood tests to identify the viruses take several days to weeks.

“In any given area like this, the flu . . . may only hit us for three or four weeks,” he said. “We can’t say when you’re going to see the flu--maybe not until the beginning of next year, or we could have an early season and have them all descending on us pretty soon.”

While the illness sends most people to bed for a day or two, it

can be fatal for the elderly and others who are susceptible to disease. Influenza was blamed for eight deaths at a Fullerton nursing home between Christmas and New Year’s Day last year.

As a precaution, the Health Department will offer free influenza immunizations beginning Nov. 1, said Dr. Gerald Wagner, county medical director for child health programs and immunizations. The county will administer 50,000 doses of an influenza vaccine that includes defense-building strains of three bugs: A/Taiwan, A/Sichuan and B/Victoria. The vaccine provides about six months of protection.

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The vaccinations, which can be obtained at the county’s clinics in Santa Ana, Buena Park, Costa Mesa and Westminster, are recommended for people 55 and older and for others who suffer from chronic illnesses including asthma and heart disease, Wagner said.

FLU FACTS Symptoms: Headaches, general muscle aches and pains, sore throat, sneezing, gastrointestinal problems, high temperature, cough and lung infections. Season: In Southern California, December through April. Relief: Control the fever with a non-aspirin pain reliever, drink plenty of fluids, rest and see a doctor if the symptoms do not clear up in 3 to 4 days. Vaccine: Shots, available Nov. 1, will be for three strains: A/Taiwan, A/Sichuan, B/Victoria. Vaccines last 6 months. Information: Call the county Health Department at (714) 834-8444. CAUTION: Doctors recommend that everyone over 55 or suffering from cardiovascular disease and asthma be vaccinated. It is not recommended for those allergic to eggs or chicken.


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