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Alabama's flu season mild, officials say

By Garry Mitchell
Associated Press Writer

MOBILE — Looking back on this flu season, Pat McQueen believes taking a flu shot annually for the last decade possibly helped her avoid the dreaded illness.

While she can't be positive about that preventive step, she says, "I've had no flu."

Now there is something flu-like going around, she said. "It's the creeping crud, coughing, not really the flu, but a virus."

Lashandra Zeine, who recently waited with McQueen for the Mobile County Health Department pharmacy to open, said she has never had a flu shot or the flu. She's afraid that taking a flu shot could bring her down with the flu, citing accounts from co-workers who took the shot.

McQueen and Zeine, both of Mobile, are among the lucky many in Alabama who avoided the flu this year, despite the uproar caused by a vaccine shortage. The season usually starts in December and most often peaks in February before winding down this month.

Health officials have described this Alabama flu season as mild. Alabama and four other states — Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and South Carolina — and the District of Columbia and New York City reported only local flu activity.

But flu was widespread in neighboring Georgia, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"I think we've had a mild season. It's a mystery why other states say it's more severe," said state epidemiologist Dr. J.P. Lofgren of Montgomery.

Twenty-four states reported widespread flu activity and 20 states reported regional flu activity, according to the CDC.

Normal flu season

During a normal season, the flu affects 10 to 20 percent of the population, but Lofgren said it never reached that level this year in Alabama.

Only 11 counties reported positive flu cases in a health department report for the week Feb. 27-March 5. Jefferson had the highest number — 15. Shelby, Autauga, Lauderdale, Choctaw, Lawrence, Montgomery, Etowah, Dallas, Jackson and Greene were in single digits.

Sondra Nassetta, a nurse in charge of disease surveillance for the Madison County Health Department and six nearby counties, said most people with the flu will go to their doctor instead of the health department. Not every doctor is required to report flu cases, but some are selected as "sentinels," who report flu cases to the CDC for use in its disease surveillance reports.

"I think we had more cases last year because the season started so much earlier," Nassetta said.

Mobile County Health Department spokeswoman Stephanie Woods said people have experienced some illness with flu-like symptoms in the port city area, but it's not actually the flu.

Woods guessed that the flu rate could be low because the very young and elderly were given priority for flu shots during the vaccine shortage.

"That had something to do with it. We hit the target groups and immunized the very old and very young," Woods said.

But that theory may not hold since people in all age groups can get the flu.

Vaccines are usually administered in October and November, but vaccine shortages occurred due to bacterial contamination of one product — Fluvirin.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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