Flu patient numbers declining, ‘but we’re not out of woods yet’

BOTHELL, Wash. -- The rough flu season in Western Washington is winding down. Doctors say in the past week the numbers have sharply declined but the danger is not over.

Snohomish County got the worst of Washington’s flu season this year.

Dr. Alexander Hamling, a pediatrician at Pacific Medical Centers, says he’s seen that shift in how many patients are coming into his office and leaving with a flu diagnosis.

“Three to weeks ago I’d hit five out of five patients positive for flu. Today I’m still screening patients for influenza but those levels have come down to one out of five. I think we’re seeing the decrease but we’re not out of the woods yet."

He says the pattern our state is seeing right now is typical of the fly cycle, it peaks in the winter and slows down by spring.

“It’s really the end of December, it peaks in January and February and declines around March through April,” said Hamling.

Hamling says don’t be fooled, even though the numbers are declining, the flu will be around for at least the next month and this year’s strain is especially strong.

"The H3N2, that virus tends to mutate quickly and so in that process for making the flu vaccine, it’s not always the perfect match,” said Hamling.

He says in years when scientists are close to getting that perfect match, the vaccine is only 60% effective. This year it’s far lower, only about 30% effective.

“Every year it’s a bit of a guessing game to decide what strain of the virus gets put in the vaccine,” said Dr. Mark Rupp with University of Nebraska Medical Center, Division of Infectious Diseases.

The FDA requires the flu vaccine viruses to be grown in chicken eggs, which makes it challenging to produce highly effective vaccines.

"The process for the virus to be adapted into the chicken eggs actually caused the virus to change a little bit and because of that change, the vaccine doesn't fully recognize the wild type strain that's in circulation,” said Rupp.

Doctors say it’s not too late to get a flu shot and remember to keep healthy habits in mind, because the one thing worse than being sick in the winter is getting that dreaded spring or summer flu.

“Stay hydrated, take your multivitamins and remember clean hands are happy hands,” said Hamling.