SALT LAKE CITY — A lot of Utahns are sick with influenza, but the state health department reports fewer hospitalizations due to the highly contagious virus than last year.
"Last year was historically bad, the worst in a decade," said Keegan McCaffrey, influenza epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. The latest agency reports indicate that influenza is "widespread" at the moment.
Since October, 737 people have been hospitalized with the flu in Utah and the number of people testing positive with influenza is on the rise.
The spread of illness doesn't appear to be stopping anytime soon.
"There's definitely a lot of flu going around right now," McCaffrey said. "We're expecting to see elevated flu activity at least the next couple weeks."
The most prominent strain circulating is influenza A, H1N1 subtype, which first reared its ugly face and infected tens of thousands in 2009. The influenza vaccine, which health officials purport is the most effective weapon against contracting the illness, contains protection for H1N1, as well as other common strains. While scientists try for the best match possible, the efficacy of this year's vaccine won't be known until after the season is over.
Various studies have shown that even when the vaccine doesn't match the virus going around, it can still "substantially reduce influenza-related hospitalizations and death," according to The Medical Letter, a nonprofit dedicated to providing objective information on FDA-approved medications.
McCaffrey said a flu shot will not only protect people against the illness, but reduce the severity of symptoms and shrink a person's duration of sickness.
Doctors and clinics also have other weapons to defend against severe symptoms. The United States Food and Drug Administration approved a new, single-dose, anti-viral flu medication at the start of the flu season in October.
It's the first approval of its kind in nearly 20 years, according to the FDA, and the new drug, Xofluza, is indicated for the treatment of influenza in people age 12 and older who have had flu symptoms for up to 48 hours.
"It blocks the influenza virus from replicating or reproducing in the body," said Christina Beckwith, a drug information specialist with University of Utah Pharmacy Services. She said the new drug, though it is a single dose, does the same thing as Tamiflu, which has been available since 1999.
"Studies showed it did reduce the time until symptoms went away, compared with placebo," Beckwith said. "Patients felt better 23 hours faster when taking Xofluza."
The results are similar with Tamiflu, which is available as a generic, oseltamivir phosphate, making it significantly less expensive than the newer drug. Beckwith said the difference is that Xofluza is a single dose, whereas Tamiflu is taken for five days or until symptoms subside.
Xofluza, she said, is quite expensive, as it has yet to land on the hospital's formulary list of medications.
University of Utah Hospital has only purchased the new medication about a dozen times since it became available, and most of those were in an outpatient setting, Beckwith said. Xofluza was used once in a hospitalized patient, records show. The Tamiflu/oseltamivir formulation, however, she said, has been used a lot more.
Both medications reduce symptoms by about a day.
"For some people, it may or may not be a huge difference when you look at the cost of the medication," Beckwith said, though she couldn't provide an exact cost because drug prices vary depending on insurance plans. "(Xofluza) wasn't shown to relieve symptoms faster than the generic Tamiflu."
If symptoms have been present more than two days, and it is too late to take an anti-viral, Beckwith said, "the best treatment is prevention."
The health department advises people with influenza to stay home and away from others until they feel better or any fever subsides. McCaffrey also said it is important to wash hands and cover coughs and sneezes to keep the sickness from spreading.
The influenza virus travels through the molecules in the air and is very easily passed from person to person, he said.
"The best thing you can do to stop the spread of flu is to get a flu shot if you haven't already," McCaffrey said.
A flu shot, while still available, he said, generally takes two weeks to provide a person with full immunity. It is recommended that people get a flu shot annually and at the start of the flu season, ideally before November, McCaffrey said. However, he added, "it's not too late to get one now."
The flu season typically ends in May and the number of cases should decrease until then.