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THURSDAY, DECEMBER 21, 2006
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Season's coughs and hacks of flu not statewide

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — When Santa's sleigh flies over North Alabama on Christmas Eve, he probably will need a mask to avoid flu and pneumonia germs.

Despite widespread reports of illness in the Decatur area, Morgan, Lawrence and Limestone counties are not showing any indication of a major influenza outbreak or contagious pneumonia, state health officials said.

As of Wednesday, only eight Alabama counties had confirmed influenza case numbers high enough to be on the state Department of Public Health's influenza radar: Cullman, DeKalb, Etowah, Elmore, Houston, Mobile and Tuscaloosa.

Lauderdale County also reported spotty cases of flu, but not enough for a true outbreak. Other counties with isolated cases included Butler, Lee and Pike.

Decatur General Hospital's figures for the past 60 days show only 14 patients hospitalized with a diagnosis of influenza, a figure that hospital spokeswoman Vanessa Walls said probably came as a result of admissions through doctor's offices. If this year's flu season is typical, Walls expects the number to increase between now and late February or early March, when flu cases normally taper off.

While the state does not receive reports of pneumonia cases unless they are unusual strains of the disease, there were none this week.

During the past two months, Decatur General has had 170 patients with pneumonia, but Walls said the cases were routine varieties and not the type that causes widespread contagion.

Dr. Don Williamson, state health officer, said most types of pneumonia are not highly contagious and often do not spread, even among family members.

Dr. Williamson said Alabama's flu season this year is unusual in one respect: The first cases appeared in August, about three months ahead of the average start for flu season here. The varieties are influenza A H1N1 and B, both in this year's vaccine.

"It appeared early and did not spread widely at that time," Dr. Williamson said.

He does not predict what the season will look like in weeks ahead, but he urges Alabamians to get a flu shot.

"There is still time," Dr. Williamson said.

Public health clinics received vaccine late because of a late delivery schedule and still have supplies.

For a cough-and-sneeze-free Christmas, Dr. Williamson reminded people to wash hands frequently, stay home when sick, avoid contact when possible with people who have the flu, avoid eating and drinking after others, cough into your elbow to contain germs and avoid contaminating your hands, and get enough sleep.

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