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DHS news release

March 18, 2005

Contact: Bonnie Widerburg (503) 731-4180
Technical contact: Mel Kohn, M.D., state epidemiologist (503) 731-4023


Flu and respiratory illness rates high in Oregon



Influenza and other respiratory illnesses in Oregon rose in mid-February and may be near their peak for the winter, public health officials in the Oregon Department of Human Services said today.


Although every year is different, flu typically peaks in Oregon in late January or early February.


"This year's season seems to be peaking later than last year and may last for several more weeks," said Mel Kohn, M.D., state epidemiologist in DHS.


In contrast, the 2004 influenza season struck much sooner and was largely over by the end of January, Kohn said.


"For a while it appeared that Oregon would escape influenza this year and those who did not get a flu shot may have considered themselves lucky," Kohn said. "I hope that this peak later in the season will encourage people who are at risk to get a flu shot next year."

Kohn urged people to continue practicing the respiratory etiquette tips that were strongly encouraged earlier this winter:

  • Wash your hands frequently to get rid of germs you have picked up.
  • Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue or shirtsleeve when you cough or sneeze to avoid spreading germs.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are ill.
  • Stay home when you are sick.

Although influenza and other respiratory illnesses are not reportable diseases, DHS is able to estimate the frequency of the disease through three monitoring programs.


"Although each of these measures is imperfect, all three show an increase and we therefore believe that that a real increase is occurring," Kohn said.

  • Laboratories reported influenza in 75 percent of specimens submitted for testing in the week ending March 12. This was the sixth consecutive week, and the highest yet, with an elevated percentage of specimens positive. A smaller peak was seen in late January.
  • A sentinel provider network of volunteer clinicians reported that over 4 percent of all clinic visits in late February and early March were for influenza-like illness. This is up from 1 to 2 percent in the preceding three weeks and compares to less than 1 percent before mid-January. Clinic visits for influenza-like illnesses have since decreased to just over 2 percent for the week ending March 12.
  • Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research in Portland provides DHS with data on respiratory illness among its 460,000 heath plan members in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Clinic visits for new respiratory illness dropped slightly in the week ending March 12. From early February to early March, the rate of these visits was twice that seen in October and November, before flu season began.

Influenza is a viral illness. Its symptoms include fever, headache, cough, sore throat and fatigue. Most of those infected have a brief illness from which they quickly recover. Because influenza and most other wintertime respiratory illnesses are caused by viruses, antibiotics are usually not necessary.


For some people, particularly those under age 2 and the elderly, these illnesses can be serious. Each year officials estimate that more than 30,000 people in the US, mostly elderly, die from influenza or its complications.


Download a graph (PDF) that charts the influenza numbers from the sentinel provider network and Kaiser Permanente.