The flu has hit hard across the country this year, and children have been especially vulnerable.
The latest report from the Centers for Disease Control listed 17 more pediatric deaths, bringing the overall child total to 53. Georgia's 37 flu deaths so far include one child, according to reports from the Georgia Department of Public Health. Hospitalization rates nationally are at their highest in about eight years.
Health care professionals say families should still get flu shots if they haven't already — flu season has weeks to go — and stores are staying stocked up on flu-fighting medicines and supplies.
At this time last year, there had been just two deaths associated with the flu in Georgia. Flu season came early this year, though, and it has shown high peaks of activity, according to the North Central Health District.
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For the 2017-18 year, the district has had four deaths so far, all people ages 55 or older, said Amber Erickson, the district's director of epidemiology and assessment. The department does not track individual flu cases, only flu deaths.
At least two Bibb County elementary schools had more than 50 students absent at least two days in the last week, according to the district. Each day, roughly five to 10 students from every school are going home with a fever and headache, and many of them are testing positive for the flu.
"It's not too late to get the flu shot," said Beverlyn Ming, nursing director at the Macon-Bibb County Health Department. "If you're young or if you're an adult with some chronic illness, prevention is key."
For the past five years, the Macon health department has scheduled school flu clinics, where students and staff can get shots if they sign consent forms in advance. The number of children receiving the vaccines at school has decreased, however, since the department stopped using the flu mist, which reports have shown is not as effective, Ming said.
All 13 health departments in the North Central Health District are offering free flu shots, while supplies last, to uninsured clients. Locations are listed at http://northcentralhealthdistrict.org/Locations/. Clients should call the office to check on availability and make an appointment, according to a press release.
"We want everyone to get immunized," Ming said.
Dr. Christy Peterson, a pediatrician with Children's Hospital, Navicent Health, said it seems like more families have been coming in to get flu shots lately after realizing it's not too late in the season. While the vaccine takes about two weeks to become protective, "it's better late than never."
And the tried-and-true strategies help. Washing hands often is the best way to fight the spread of illness in a household. Get a good night's sleep whenever you can, exercise, maintain stress levels and drink lots of water so the "body will be ready to put up a good fight," she said.
The North Central Health District has urged people with flulike symptoms — fever, chills, sore throat, coughing, stuffy or runny nose, body and muscle aches, headache and fatigue — to contact their medical provider right away to get a prescription for Tamiflu, which can help prevent the spread of the flu virus in the body.
Peterson said it's important to get to the doctor within 48 hours of symptoms so the drug will be most effective.
"We're definitely seeing more kids come in and a lot more positive flu than it feels like in years past," Peterson said. "But not every child is testing positive for the flu. I think we're seeing a lot more concern among parents, which is reasonable."
Chi-ches-ter's Pharmacy in Macon has more than 100 boxes of adult Tamiflu right now, as well as some children's Tamiflu, said pharmacist Cleo Bennette. The business also has no shortage of flu shots and just received a big shipment of masks and gloves, which some customers have been asking for. The store is also carrying elderberry, colloidal silver and echinacea — herbal prevention remedies.
"This has been the worst year yet. That's why we got on the bandwagon and ordered the Tamiflu. We thought, this is not going to be a good year," Bennette said.
Mike Iteogu, a pharmacist and owner of Mike's Medical Pharmacy in Macon, said his store also stocked up on Tamiflu in anticipation. Because of the high number of deaths, he has been advising customers to seek immediate medical attention if they have flulike symptoms.
Children with asthma are at a higher risk of getting the flu and developing complications, so parents should have had them vaccinated already and have asthma treatments on hand and ready to use quickly, Peterson said.