Fort Worth's flu season expected to be milder this year

The flu has hit North Texas, but don't expect to see a repeat of last year, when school districts closed and the public scrambled to get the H1N1 vaccine.

"We haven't seen any big numbers yet, but it's starting up," said Dr. Donald Murphey, medical director of infectious disease for Cook Children's Medical Center. "It's going to take off in the community, and that's probably going to happen in the next few weeks."

Statewide, flu activity has been classified as "local" with 128 confirmed positive tests, although that number does not represent how many people have actually been sick, public health officials said. There has been one pediatric flu death in Texas.

This flu season, only 18 cases have been confirmed in Tarrant County, according to public health officials.

It's a far different scenario from last year, when 135 people were hospitalized and 13 H1N1-associated deaths occurred in Tarrant County. Statewide, there were 240 deaths from April 2009 to April 2010.

By October last year, H1N1 influenza cases had already peaked with about 13,000 cases, and in December, flu cases were fast dropping off.

Since last year, health officials haven't seen any cases of H1N1 in North Texas, but it's just a matter of time before it reappears, Murphey said.

"If you look back in history when a new flu strain arises, it doesn't come all one year and then disappears," he said. "It circulates for years."

Unlike last year, when the H1N1 vaccine was in short supply, this year it is readily available at doctors' offices, public health clinics and pharmacies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended the flu vaccine for everyone over 6 months. In addition, a high-dose flu shot is available for people over 65.

"Usually it is the very old and very young who get severely ill with the flu," Murphey said. "Every year there are 20,000 to 30,000 deaths due to influenza."

There is still time to get a flu shot. This year's vaccine protects against H1N1, Influenza A and Influenza B, the strains that are circulating in Texas, state health officials said.

Influenza typically causes abrupt symptoms, while a cold comes on gradually and leaves gradually, said Dr. Tariq Vora, a family physician with the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

"With the flu, all of a sudden you have a high-grade fever, chills, fatigue, muscle aches and a sore throat," he said. "That lasts five days and then you abruptly recover."

Meguire Taylor, 27, had all of the symptoms a week ago and still hasn't recovered.

"By Wednesday night my head was still killing me," she said. "My sinuses were so dried out that they were bleeding, but my nose was swollen so shut that I was swallowing blood and coughing it up."

Taylor's doctor wasn't sure what made her so sick.

But Taylor is sure of one thing: "All I want to do now is curl up on the couch and sleep."

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664