UF Health Shands Hospital officials note late increase in flu cases

UF Health Shands Hospital officials are reporting a late-season surge in the number of patients hospitalized with influenza. Since Feb. 15, 17 people were admitted to the medical and pediatric intensive care units.

"Our research over the past several years has highlighted the ease with which the flu virus can change," said Nicole Iovine, M.D., Ph.D., hospital epidemiologist for UF Health Shands Hospital and an associate professor of medicine in the UF College of Medicine's division of infectious diseases and global medicine. "It is possible that those changes have made it such that the vaccine might be less effective against what is now circulating."

Despite questions regarding the vaccine's efficacy, yearly vaccination against the flu is still recommended.

"It's not too late for people to get a flu shot," Iovine added. "The flu shot remains the single best way we have to prevent flu."

Flu season generally peaks between the end of December and the beginning of January, yet in the past two weeks, Iovine has noted a sharp uptick in the number of flu cases admitted to the hospital. Between Feb. 15 and Feb. 29, 111 patients tested positive for influenza. In comparison, fewer than 20 were admitted during either of the two traditional time periods when flu incidence peaks.

Two of the types of flu strains that seem prevalent right now are H1N1 and H3N2. When compared with other flu strains, H1N1 disproportionately strikes people under the age of 50, which is unusual, Iovine said. The hospital also has seen pediatric patients who have required hospitalization.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health also have reported an increase in cases nationwide.

Through her role as a member of UF's Emerging Pathogens Institute, Iovine is part of a team of specialists who study seasonal flu strains and the public health efforts taken to prevent their spread. Their study of the 2014-2015 season's flu virus showed the strain that brought most people to UF Health Shands Hospital bore significant difference from the strains contained in that year's flu vaccine. Additional research is necessary to determine the causes behind the late onset of this year's flu virus.

The CDC recommends a three-step approach to preventing and fighting influenza:

  1. Get a flu vaccine at a local pharmacy or your health-care provider's office.
  2. Take everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs, such as washing your hands and using hand sanitizer,
    and covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. If you do contract the flu, stay home.
  3. Take flu antiviral drugs if your doctor prescribes them.