Flu prevention tips

Get a flu vaccination each year.Wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.Stay home if you are sick until you have been symptom-free without taking fever-reducing medicine for 24 hours. Children who have the flu may return to school 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of fever without the use of fever-reducing medicine.Try to avoid close contact with sick people.Eat a healthy diet, exercise and get plenty of rest.Source: DHEC

South Carolina appears to be at the beginning of a more serious flu season than it’s seen in recent years, and health officials are encouraging the public to vaccinate their families as soon as possible.

Where to find vaccinations

Flu shots are available at public health clinics, dozens of pharmacies and doctor’s offices.Public health clinic locations include:Berkeley CountyGoose Creek: 106 Westview Blvd.Moncks Corner: 109 W. Main St.Dorchester CountySummerville: 500 N. Main St.Charleston CountyNorth Charleston: 3963 Whipper Barony LaneCall (843) 953-0090 from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday to schedule an appointment at a clinic.For a list of pharmacies, go to http://flushot.healthmap.org.

The potentially deadly virus has claimed seven Palmetto State residents’ lives since Sept. 30. The state had only one flu-related death during last year’s flu season, which ran from October 2011 through July 7 of this year.

The state’s number of flu cases shot up dramatically in the most recent count, with 8,459 cases in one week. That’s more than half of the 14,381 total reports for this entire flu season, and those figures far exceed last season’s 2,552 reported cases, according to the state.

“The best protection is to avoid guessing what’s going to happen and get the flu vaccine to prevent it,” said Dr. Linda Bell, acting epidemiologist for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

South Carolina is one of eight states where the virus is considered to be “widespread,” and state health officials said the virus has arrived earlier than usual and is spreading fast.

“We’re seeing it on the front lines,” said Dr. Keith Borg, division chief of pediatric emergency medicine for the Medical University of South Carolina.

Borg’s hospital saw 20 cases last week, up from 11 the previous week and two the preceding week. The numbers aren’t huge, but the curve is significant. “It went from almost nothing to straight up,” he said. And it’s following the statewide trend.

In addition to it being flu season, it’s the time of year for upper-respiratory virus infections, which aren’t related to the flu and generally are milder.

The state doesn’t track reports of common colds because those illnesses can be resolved without treatment and don’t have severe complications, Bell said. That’s a dramatic distinction from the flu, which is severe and can lead to hospitalization or death.

“There’s a difference between being under the weather and getting the flu,” she said.

The good news is that it appears this year’s vaccinations are well-matched to the flu strains circulating in the community. One of those strains seems to be more severe, and that’s one of the wild cards in predicting the severity of this year’s flu season, Bell said. Another is the percentage of the population that receives vaccinations.

The flu doesn’t appear to be affecting public schools yet. None of the three biggest Lowcountry school districts — Berkeley, Charleston or Dorchester 2 — reported seeing atypical numbers of students with flu, but they are aware that it’s spreading and are letting parents know what they can do to keep their kids healthy.

Melissa Prendergast, Charleston school district’s director of nursing services, said she’s hearing anecdotally from school nurses that they’re seeing more sick children, and they have had some confirmed flu cases. But the percentage of students sent home for all illnesses by nurses only increased 0.4 percentage points to 1.8 percent between October and now, she said.

Bell said other parts of the state, such as the Midlands, have seen higher absentee rates for schools, as well as clusters of reports in other places, such as assisted-living facilities.

If it’s a more severe flu season, the state will see its number of cases rise steadily before reaching a plateau.

“This is a more dramatic climb, or an increase in the level of activity, early on,” Bell said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.