Saturday, December 6, 2003

Hospital tries to keep out flu

Children's off-limits to some visitors

By Rebecca Goodman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Nurse Shannon Huff holds Tabitha Atwood, 7, as she gets a flu shot Friday in Chillicothe, Ohio.
(Associated Press photo)
Worried about the early arrival of the flu, Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center on Friday issued visiting restrictions for the entire hospital.

This marks the first time Cincinnati Children's has imposed visiting restrictions because of the flu. The hospital last restricted visitors during an outbreak 10 years ago of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough.

The rare move is needed to protect sick children inside the hospital, said Dr. Beverly L. Connelly of the hospital's infectious disease department.

"I don't want kids coming in for one thing and leaving with influenza," she said.

The restrictions prohibit children 13 or younger and anyone with symptoms of acute illness - such as fever, sore throat and cough - from visiting patients. Additionally, only two visitors per patient will be allowed on inpatient units, and only parents and guardians may visit intensive care areas.

The flu season has hit Cincinnati early this year. While influenza isn't normally seen here until late January or early February, 23 cases have been confirmed by Children's labs so far.

"I don't know when we'll peak, but this is just the beginning," Connelly said.

Each year more than 36,000 people - mostly the elderly and those with underlying illness - die nationwide from flu complications. Doctors believe this season could see more cases and deaths.

Other states have already reported more cases than last season. In Colorado, more cases have been diagnosed than the last two seasons combined.

Influenza is a highly contagious viral infection of the upper respiratory system. It can lead to pneumonia and other complications in high-risk patients. Children are two to three times more likely to contract the flu than adults. At least 10 children have died in the United States this season from flu complications.

That's why Cincinnati Children's is determined to seal off the hospital from the virus.

"I don't need our kids recovering from influenza on top of surgery. This will add fuel to the fire," Connelly said.

There is no cure for the flu, but a vaccination developed every year against a particular strain is highly effective in preventing illness. Connelly recommends that every person 10 or older who hasn't already received a vaccination, do so immediately.

Protection will kick in two weeks after the shot, and the recipient will stand a good chance of avoiding the flu.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that high-risk people - such as the elderly, infants and those with respiratory or immune illnesses - take the flu vaccine every year beginning in October.

Connelly recommended that everyone get a shot immediately.

"I would hate to see a vaccine sitting on a shelf instead of protecting a body."

No local vaccine shortage

Dr. Malcolm Adcock, health commissioner for the city of Cincinnati, said local health departments have vaccines available, despite word Friday from the two makers that they have run out.

"There isn't a limitless supply, but there are flu immunizations available," he said. "We continue to stress, as always, that people at risk for the flu should already have gotten the vaccine, but if they have not - no matter what their age - we encourage them to get one."

It may be too late this season for the vaccine to provide any benefits to children under 10 who have never received the shot, Connelly said. Those children must have two doses of the vaccine spaced a month apart to receive protection. Since immunization is achieved two weeks after the second shot, that means the soonest protection can be obtained is six weeks - possibly far too late to prevent the flu.

Influenza is spread from person to person by breathing airborne droplets of the virus transmitted by sneezing or coughing or by touching any object upon which the virus rests. It can live on surfaces such as doorknobs, toys, keyboards and telephones for a short time.

Frequent and thorough hand washing - with soap and warm water - is the most important preventive measure people can take. Another is to avoid touching the eyes, nose or mouth unless the hands are clean.

Connelly advises standing at least three feet away from people because infected droplets usually don't travel farther than that. She also suggests catching sneezes and coughs in a tissue, then disposing of the tissue immediately - don't stick the germs into pockets or purses.


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