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Nursing Homes, Hospitals Protect Elderly, Children During State's Flu Outbreak

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RALEIGH, N.C. — As the flu outbreak continues in North Carolina, children and the elderly are most vulnerable to the virus.

In Wake County alone, at least three senior citizens have died this year from flu complications. Meanwhile, the health department announced Tuesday that another child has died from the virus -- making him the sixth child to die from the flu this year.

North Carolina averages 15 child deaths a year from flu and pneumonia. Senior citizens are just as much a part of the "at-risk" population as young children are, although concern for the kids seems much more conspicuous and widespread.

But at Mayview Convalescent Center in Raleigh, residents are treated as fragile as a sign near the front door says they are, and the staff is taking steps to protect them from the flu.

The sign in the entrance politely tells visitors to come back another time if they have a cold, flu, fever or cough.

"I think it's obvious that the flu was going to have an earlier impact and potentially more significant impact," said Mayview's Travis Tomlinson. "So we just try to err on the side of caution."

The nursing home is taking precautions because during the holidays, their visitors double. From Christmas carolers to cousins of residents, they ask everyone to use their best judgement.

Management thinks the precaution is really working. So far, Mayview has had no cases of the flu. Staff has seen people walk through the door, read the sign and leave.

With people age 65 and over considered high risk, 98 percent of the residents have had a flu shot. Two-thirds of the staff also has gotten shots.

Resident Grace Holton tries to stay healthy by exercising twice a week. At 89, she is willing to give up the visits she looks forward to if it means the flu will stay away.

"Well, it drags you down, takes so much out of you," she said.

Meanwhile, another child has died from the flu. State Health Director Dr. Leah Devlin announced Tuesday that an 18-month-old Stanly County boy died Dec. 10 shortly after being admitted to a hospital.

The child had exhibited flu-like symptoms for two days before being found unresponsive by his parents. The autopsy results indicated type A influenza.

The child received a flu shot in October.

"The deaths of these six children are personal tragedies for the families involved, and we all experience great sadness for these families," Devlin said. "But, it is important to remember that flu and its complications are the sixth-leading cause of death nationally among children 4 and younger.

"This flu season, more than five times the number of children have been immunized than were immunized in past flu seasons."

Last year, 29,000 high-risk North Carolina children got their flu shots through the state's immunization program. This year, more than 153,000 have been immunized.

Data are not available on the numbers immunized through private providers.

"In addition, the public's overall knowledge about health-protective actions they can take has been heightened over the past several years," Devlin said. "The fact that the flu season began earlier this year has caught the public's attention."

Because of the risk flu poses to children and the elderly, many area hospitals are restricting visitor access. The most recent to join the list is Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville. Officials there are asking that children's visits be kept to an absolute minimum and that any visitor experiencing flu symptoms should not visit the hospital.

Devlin reiterated her earlier estimation that flu cases should start to decrease soon.

"While the current flu season has resulted in more illness than what is expected in an average year, we believe that the season is close to its peak," she said. "We will probably have another tough couple of weeks, but based on national and international trends we've been monitoring, we believe that the number of cases should start to fall in early 2004."

The Health Department said those who develop flu-like symptoms should drink fluids, rest and stay home to avoid spreading the infection. Flu sufferers may also take over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

Devlin said aspirin should be avoided because taking it for some forms of flu has been associated with Reye's Syndrome, a serious disease in children that can occur following a viral illness and that causes swelling of the brain. Consumers should carefully check their over-the-counter medicines to ensure that they do not contain aspirin.

Consumers should also make sure to follow all directions on both prescribed and over-the-counter medicine. At least one death this flu season has been attributed to an overdose of acetaminophen.

Prescription drugs are also available to treat flu in some circumstances. They are most effective if taken within two days of developing symptoms. Antibiotics are not effective against viral diseases like flu.

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