Pesky Flu Bug Returns in Annual Visit; No Evidence of Epidemic

Times Staff Writer

It’s that time of year again. Influenza, a contagious disease characterized by fever, muscle pain and an inflamed respiratory tract, is making its rounds in San Diego.

In the past 30 days, five reported cases of influenza were confirmed by laboratory analysis, county health officials said. But, because most doctors don’t confirm influenza by sending samples to a lab, “That’s only the tip of the iceberg. . . . If there are five, there are literally dozens, maybe hundreds, more,” said health official Dr. Donald Ramras.

However, health officials say there is no epidemic.

School Absenteeism


School absenteeism rates--used by the County Health Services Department to determine whether there is an influenza outbreak--are not yet available because students have only just returned to classes after the holidays. Absenteeism rates before Christmas were “normal,” Ramras said.

Judy Beck, school nurse supervisor for the San Diego Unified School District, said she had no indication of large numbers of students catching influenza.

District figures show 96,659 absences because of illness or other personal reasons from Nov. 7 to Dec. 2, contrasted with 89,549 absences from Oct. 10 to Nov. 4. These figures do not include absences because of truancy.

The two other indexes the county uses to determine epidemics, the number of laboratory tests and emergency room admissions, do not indicate an epidemic either, Ramras said.

“Influenza is not a reportable disease; there’s no way of getting a firm feel of what’s going on . . . there’s no question we have some,” he said. “The extent is just hard to put a finger on.” The disease, he said, is “very common for this time of the year. We’re probably going to continue to have it for the next couple months.”

Slight Increase

Laura Avallone, a spokeswoman for Mercy Hospital, said the emergency room had seen a “slight increase” in people coming in with colds and influenza.

A spokeswoman for UC San Diego Medical Center’s Family Practice said more people have been coming in with viruses, coughs and sore throats and more have been requesting flu vaccinations.

Dr. Michael Berger at Palomar Hospital’s emergency room said he has not seen anything indicating an outbreak of influenza, but he said more people are likely to catch it at this time of year. “The cold weather doesn’t bring it on, but people are indoors more and the infectivity is enhanced,” he said.

Ramras said influenza can kill people in “high risk” groups--in particular older people with chronic heart or metabolic problems and kidney and lung complications.

The best protection from the disease is immunization, he said.

“Other than that, just keep generally in good health,” Ramras said. “There’s no way to prevent exposure unless you live in a closed box. . . . It’s just plain old common sense, not abusing your body.”