The flu is marching its way across New York State from east to west. While New York City and upstate counties to the east are seeing higher flu levels, it's only a matter of time before Western New York catches up — if history is any guide.
The most recent county and state data show a spike in both local and statewide flu cases for the last week of December. In Erie and Niagara counties, 55 diagnosed flu cases were reported that week, an increase of 224 percent from the previous week. Across the state, flu cases rose 49 percent.
State Department of Health numbers show that the number of people contracting the flu over the past two months is slightly higher than the same period for each of the last two seasons.
"You never know what to expect," said Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein.
Flu season runs through March. In this region, it typically peaks in late January and early February. For that reason, Burstein and other health professionals stress that it's not too late to get the flu vaccine — though time is running out. It takes about two weeks after a flu shot for the body to develop the necessary antibodies to fight off the virus.
"The flu can be deadly, especially for young children," Burstein said.
Though such deaths are rare, she said, "it does happen."
So far, the state has recorded one child death in October due to the flu. Last season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 185 pediatric deaths in the nation due to the flu, with 80 percent of those deaths occurring in children who had not been vaccinated.
The flu is a contagious viral illness that affects the respiratory system and often comes on quickly. Those unfortunate enough to contract the flu can be laid up for one to two weeks, with the worst onslaught of symptoms lasting several days, including a fever, chills, aches, cough and headaches.
Health professionals consider the flu vaccine to be the best preventative measure against the flu, though its effectiveness varies from year to year. Last season, the vaccine was considered 40 percent effective, better than originally projected, though not as good as many prior years. Over the past decade, effectiveness has ranged from a low of 19 percent to a high of 60 percent, according to the CDC.
It's still too early to tell how effective this year's vaccine will be against the two flu strains it is designed to protect recipients against, Burstein said.
"On the flip side, we don’t have any information that it’s not effective," she added.
Even when the vaccine is not considered a perfect match for the flu virus, recent studies have shown the vaccine can still benefit those who contract the flu by reducing the severity of symptoms.
The vaccine is recommended for anyone 6 months and older. Those with compromised immune systems and those who regularly interact with such individuals are especially urged to receive the vaccine, Burstein said. Children ages 18 and under who are not insured can still receive the flu vaccine free of charge under the federal Vaccines for Children program.