January 10, 2001
Influenza (flu) illnesses are hitting Hawaii earlier
than last year, with an increase in cases over the past month,
specifically among high school-aged students.
The Department of Health was able to pinpoint these
flu cases quickly with its state-of-the-art flu surveillance program
nationally recognized as one of the most comprehensive in the United
As part of this program, the DOH initiated the use
of rapid flu tests with routine virus cultures for the 2001-2002 season
in Hawaii. While virus cultures are needed to identify specific flu
strains, rapid tests can assist physicians by providing immediate
information that can help to reduce complications in high-risk
patients. Laboratories can turn around rapid test results in less than
24 hours while routine cultures can take up to 14 days. Hawaii is the
first state in the nation to pair these two tests for disease
High-risk patients are especially prone to becoming
hospitalized and dying from the flu and complications that accompany
the flu. Each year, flu illness results in increased numbers of visits
to the doctor for treatment. Walk-in clinics and emergency rooms often
treat increased numbers of seniors and others with chronic medical
conditions such as heart and lung diseases and diabetes during the flu
season. Using this new type of rapid testing provides physicians with a
‘real time snap shot’ of influenza among their patients.
This type of information answers the questions of who, where, when, and
in which age groups influenza is occurring.
Flu epidemics occur nearly every year during the
winter months and are associated with an average of 144,000
hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths per year in the United States.
Influenza viruses have the ability to mutate and emerge without
warning. In addition to annual epidemics, periodic shifts and drifts in
flu viruses have caused catastrophic illness on a global scale. The
importance of maintaining heightened flu surveillance was underscored
by the highly fatal 1997 outbreak of avian influenza in Hong Kong.
One of the real strengths of rapid testing of flu
viruses is that it encourages doctors to submit virus culture
specimens. Isolation and identification of actual flu strains are the
only means of determining whether the strains of flu circulating in the
community are the same ones that the flu vaccine provides protection
against. The strains currently circulating locally -- the
A/Panama/2007/99-like (H3N2) and the B/Sichuan/379/99-like -- are well
matched to this year’s flu vaccine.
This is all the more reason to get flu shot now. The
flu shot takes about two weeks to become fully effective. Many persons
at high risk for flu have Medicare Part B insurance that provides for
an annual flu shot with no out-of-pocket expense to the beneficiary.
There is sufficient vaccine at clinics throughout Hawaii to handle flu
For a list of flu shots clinics call Ask Aloha
United Way at 275-2000. Neighbor island calls can be directed to
1-877-275-6569, which is a toll-free call. The DOH Website at
provides information about flu clinics.
Additional technical information can be viewed on
the web at www.hawaii.gov/health/resource/comm_dis/flu/articles.
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