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H1N1 flu is here

Flu season has started quickly and strongly in Jackson County and elsewhere in Oregon, the latest state to be hit by the H1N1 flu strain moving through the country.

Data collected by the Oregon Public Health Division during the last week of 2013 showed more than four times the normal seasonal numbers of outpatients at Oregon hospitals and urgent-care centers for influenza-like illness.

More than a third of those who tested positive for the H1N1 strain since the flu season began Oct. 1 did so in the last week in December, raising the eyebrows of public-health doctors across the state.

"What's pretty clear is that we have a real upsurge in flu activity over the past two weeks," says Dr. Jim Shames, Jackson County's health officer. "Normally, late January is when it peaks, but it seems like we're in the middle of it now.

"Everywhere you look, there's more flu activity," Shames says.

The H1N1 strain — the same virus that triggered a pandemic scare in 2009 — "has circled the globe for years," Shames says. It can be dangerous and it does cause more illnesses in children and young adults than in older adults, he says.

"We've had some very sick people," Shames says. "We've had people sent up north to be put on heart-lung machines."

While Jackson County has seen numerous flu cases, including some very serious ones, the total number of cases wasn't available locally, Shames says.

But cases discovered at Medford's two major hospitals track with the statewide findings.

Rogue Regional Medical Center saw just one confirmed influenza case in October and November, according to the hospital. But in December, 48 out of 151 people tested for flu in the emergency room tested positive. An additional 11 positive tests were conducted on patients admitted to RRMC.

At Providence Medford Medical Center, all 13 flu cases confirmed this season happened since mid-December, center spokeswoman Hillary Brown says.

Updated numbers for early January were not available, "but I can say we've seen several confirmed cases in the past week," Brown says.

At Asante's Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass, there have been 43 confirmed influenza cases found predominantly in young and middle-aged adults, center spokesman Grant Walker says. Most of those cases have come in the past week, he says.

Public-health projections show that slightly more than one in five Jackson County residents this season has received a flu vaccination, which targets H1N1.

Shames says it's not too late to get vaccinated, "but it really ought to be now."

Without a flu shot, the chances of getting the flu are 1 in 20, according to RRMC. With the vaccine, chances are well over 1 in 100.

Vaccinations cost about $30 and can be received at pharmacies or clinics, Shames says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.