Pneumonia is hitting school-age children in greater numbers than usual this year throughout the area, health officials report.
Two pediatricians in Bradford, Pa., for instance, said recently that they diagnosed more than 100 children with pneumonia in northwestern Pennsylvania in October and November. Normally, they said, the area experiences one or two cases a month.
This does not surprise Dr. Bernard Eisenberg, a Williamsville pediatrician. He has been seeing four to eight cases a day at Amherst Pediatrics Associates.
And the flu season -- from late December to late March -- has yet to begin.
Detailed statistics are difficult to obtain because, unlike influenza, cases of pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses are not reported to government health officials. But doctors and school nurses say that the region is experiencing more cases than usual and that the outbreak has hit earlier than in past years.
"This has been going on for several weeks and hasn't let up," Eisenberg said. "I imagine it won't peak until late January or February."
Dr. Robert Welliver, an infectious-disease specialist at Children's Hospital, estimates that the number of pneumonia cases is two or three times greater than normal.
"What's interesting about this outbreak is that some important agents that cause pneumonia -- viruses and influenza -- haven't even shown up yet," Welliver said.
Pneumonia is lung inflammation normally caused by a variety of bacteria or viruses. Symptoms and signs typically include fever, chills, shortness of breath and a cough that produces sputum. Chest pain also may occur.
Pneumococcal pneumonia is probably the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia, although another bacteria-like strain, mycoplasma pneumonia, is particularly common among children and adults from ages 5 to 35.
There are vaccines against flu and against pneumococcal pneumonia. But with the other types -- and there are a host of possible causes -- you have to take your chances.
The mycoplasma pneumonia appears to be the main culprit this year, said Dr. Debra Tristram, research assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital.
"There's a fair amount of mycoplasma compared to previous years, but what we've really got is a mixed bag," she said. "There's no one type out there that you'd label an epidemic."
Mycoplasma pneumonia is mild but lingers. Symptoms, which include a bad cough, may persist one to two weeks before there is a gradual recovery, experts say. The disease is usually treated with bed rest and erythromycin, an antibiotic.
The disease appears to be spreading mainly among older children, not infants.
"We've got increased cases in most of the schools here, but, speaking for my kids, I haven't really seen a big increase in absences," said Shirley Balazs, the nurse at Dodge Elementary in the Williamsville School District.
Dr. Richard Judelsohn, Erie County's medical director of pediatrics, said he has the impression that the outbreak might have slowed down a bit.
"I've counted my own patients, taken phone calls from parents and talked to colleagues," said Judelsohn, who also has a private pediatrics practice in Buffalo and Amherst. "But when it comes to pneumonia, it's difficult to get an accurate picture of what's happening."