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Eight recent deaths of children in Georgia may be related to influenza, state health officials said Friday.
The investigation into those deaths is part of a nationwide sweep by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess how many children under the age of 18 have died from flu-related illnesses.
Details about Georgia's deaths were not released.
"The investigation requires gathering a lot of information and then ruling in and ruling out different factors," said Alison Han, an epidemiologist with the state Division of Public Health.
Last month, a 5-year-old Fulton County girl died of pneumonia that was triggered by the flu, the state's only pediatric flu death known so far this season, officials said.
In a typical flu season, about 36,000 Americans die from the flu; the majority are 65 and older.
Annually, about 92 deaths of children under age 5 across the country are attributed to the flu. To date, the CDC has recorded 42 deaths among children under age 18 this flu season.
Flu cases and flu deaths are not usually tallied because it is not among the infectious diseases that state health departments track. But because this year's strain of flu may be particularly dangerous for children, the CDC has dispatched teams of specialists to look into pediatric flu cases and deaths.
Whether the two-week holiday school break will douse the flu's rapid spread among children can't be predicted, Han said.
"They're not all around each other in schools but they have been traveling," she said.
Across the state and across the country, people of all ages are being flattened by the flu, which hit earlier than usual. While the number of states reporting widespread activity decreased to 42 from 45, outpatient visits increased, the CDC reported Friday.
Hospitals in Decatur and Lawrenceville said the flu didn't take Christmas vacation.
"Our ER is extremely busy. We're just constantly busy 24 hours a day," said Paula Martin, spokeswoman for Gwinnett Medical Center and Joan Glancy Memorial Hospital in Duluth. "Both hospitals say people keep coming in with flu-like symptoms. In fact, it might have even gotten worse in the last week."
At DeKalb Medical Center, all acute care beds are full and many employees are also home in bed with the flu, said Helen Ebaugh, director of infection control and occupational health services.
"We've really seen a huge increase of people calling in sick the last week," Ebaugh said. "And it's people from all departments from nurses to custodial staff."
Many people streaming into emergency rooms and urgent care centers have what's universally called "flu-like symptoms" --- raspy breathing, fever, chills, extreme fatigue --- but they may not have influenza. A test is needed to diagnose the flu.
However, Saint Joseph's Hospital doctors say they are confirming an exceptionally high number of emergency room patients with the flu --- and the numbers rise every week. Christmas week, 26 out of 60 people had the flu; the week before, 14 people were diagnosed with it.
Metro Atlanta childrens' hospitals said fewer kids were being seen in emergency rooms for respiratory illnesses.
At Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital, about 200 children a day came in with flu-like illness last week; the previous week some 300 kids with flu symptoms packed the ER each day, said Denise Simpson, spokesperson. Children's Healthcare of Atlanta also said the number of children being seen at Egleston and Scottish Rite hospitals and clinics had declined significantly from early December.
Flu cases usually peak in Georgia in January and February. Last year, during a mild flu season, cases started declining in mid-February.
"We haven't peaked yet," said Han. "All 19 health districts are still reporting widespread activity. It's possible we may have a peak with one strain and then another virus strain hits later."
Flu cases are declining significantly in Colorado and Texas, where the illness hit in late October, federal officials said.
This year's flu vaccine provided protection against three strains of the virus but did not include the strain A Fujian virus, which is the one widely circulating. However, health officials say the flu shot should still help lessen flu's symptoms and its duration.
The majority of Georgia's confirmed cases are influenza A, both the Fujian and Panama strains, and there has been one confirmed case of influenza B, health officials said.
Georgia health officials had no new information Friday on when the state would be receiving more flu vaccine for children that the federal government has purchased.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution