PHOENIX — A huge spike in the number of flu cases could portend a particularly bad year for the flu in Arizona.
New figures from the Arizona Department of Health Services shows there already have been 1,143 cases so far this season. That’s compared to 157 at the same time last year.
And that 2016 figure was not an aberration. The average to date is just 142.
What makes this number so potentially alarming is the timing: The number of new cases reported each week does not normally peak until February
But Jessica Rigler, the agency’s bureau chief for public health preparedness, said she’s not prepared to say at this point that the pattern being set — 385 new cases this past week alone versus 43 the same week last year — will lead to some new record in the number of people who get infected.
“Flu is really difficult to predict,” she told Capitol Media Services. “It behaves differently every single time.”
Rigler said it may just be that people are getting the flu earlier in the season than normal. And that would mean the peak will be sometime before February.
“Or it’s possible we’ll have more cases overall this year,” she continued. “It’s just a little too soon to tell.”
As to why the virus is showing up so early, Rigler has one theory.
“The majority of our cases are Influenza A, the H3 type, which is the same as what we saw last flu season,” she said. And that last season, Rigler continued, lasted unusually long, into the summer months, with 100 or more cases a week into June and July.
“So it’s possible that we never really saw a complete end to last year’s flu season and we’re just picking up where we left off,” she said.
What about the possibility that this strain — formally known as H3N2 — has become resistant to the vaccine?
“It’s difficult to say,” Rigler said.
“Ususally we’ll get some of those flu vaccine effectiveness studies that come out in the early part of next year,” she explained. “But right now we really don’t have any great estimate for the U.S. and how effective our flu vaccines are so far this year.”
Still, Rigler said the best defense is a flu shot — even now.
“Even though we’re seeing an increase in cases right now, this might not be the end,” she said. “That’s especially important right now as we enter the holiday season because people are spending more time with loved ones, including those that are very vulnerable to the complications from flu, like the elderly or infants.”
Still, she acknowledged, the protection is not immediate. Rigler said it takes about two weeks for the body to react to the killed virus in the vaccine and to build up immunity.
There’s also the other method of self-defense: Washing hands.
“And if you are feeling under the weather, it’s important to stay home from school or from work so you’re not infecting others, and to cover your coughs and sneezes with your arms so you’re not spreading germs around,” she said.