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Effective vaccine combats flu epidemic

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Liv Devitt of Lawrenceville gets tested for the flu virus by medical assistant Maria Rivera, right, at the Gwinnett Clinic in Lawrenceville Tuesday. Devitt decided to come into the clinic after feeling sick recently and wondering if she caught the flu virus from her roommates who have been diagnosed with the flu.

Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Liv Devitt of Lawrenceville gets tested for the flu virus by medical assistant Maria Rivera, right, at the Gwinnett Clinic in Lawrenceville Tuesday. Devitt decided to come into the clinic after feeling sick recently and wondering if she caught the flu virus from her roommates who have been diagnosed with the flu.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Luke Lawson of Lawrenceville receives a flu shot from medical assistant Maria Rivera at the Gwinnett Clinic in Lawrenceville Tuesday. Lawson came into the clinic for a physical and also wanted to possibly prevent catching the flue virus with a flu shot.

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Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Dr. Shveta Raju of the Gwinnett Clinic in Lawrenceville talks about how this year's flu season has been busy, but the vaccine strain has been effective.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Since Thanksgiving, Liv Devitt has battled classic flu-like symptoms that have come and gone.

She took some Mucinex, but hasn't yet felt completely back to normal.

"This is the first time I've gotten the flu or anything like this, and I don't like needles," said Devitt, a Lawrenceville resident. "I feel like the cough just won't go away."

Devitt received some good news Tuesday afternoon at the Lawrenceville location of the Gwinnett Clinic: a negative test.

"It's good news for her and us," said Dr. Meena J. Shah, medical director of the practice.

Devitt, for now, avoided being another person diagnosed during flu season in what what health officials in Georgia have said has reached "epidemic levels." The Georgia Department of Public Health on Friday said the flu has hit the state harder this season than it has in nearly a decade. Two flu-related deaths, both adults, have been reported.

Another doctor at the Gwinnett Clinic, Shveta Raju, said the practice received the vaccine in September, and first saw a spike in positive tests immediately after Thanksgiving.

"I think there's been a lot more cases, but it's been balanced by the fact that the strain has been effective," Raju said. "And it's not too late for patients to get the vaccine. It kind of peaked in mid-December, but we expect another wave or two before the end of the season."

The predominant strain of flu circulating in Georgia and around the country is H3N2, Georgia Department of Health officials said. They recommend every healthy individual over the age of six months should get a flu vaccine.

The scientists who developed the vaccine to fight this year's flu appear to have been on target, Raju said. But because the virus mutates all of the time, people need to get vaccinated every year.

"Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don't," Raju said. "That's why people worry about the pandemic flu, and that's what would have happened this year if the flu vaccine had not covered the strain."

Dr. Patrick O'Neal, the director of the Division of Health Protection with the Georgia Department of Health, said officials in neighboring states have reported more severe effects, including the number of deaths. The typical peak flu season is not until late January or early February, O'Neal said.

Shah said there was a peak in December, and a couple weeks ago. She's seen more younger people, in their 20s and 30s, visiting the office after not wanting to get a flu shot because they're afraid of getting sick.

"We try to explain to them that if you take the shot, your chances of getting it are much lower," Shah said. "If you get the flu, it will be less severe."

Shah said those who receive a flu shot are about 60 percent to 70 percent more likely to avoid the flu. But a handful of patients in her office have been diagnosed with the flu even after they received the vaccine.

Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control told Reuters that people visiting health care providers for influenza increased to 5.6 percent the previous four straight weeks, compared with 2.2 percent the previous year when the flu was considered mild.

While the vaccine is effective against this year's strain, Raju said the flu virus is also responsive to Tamiflu, a treatment for people who are 1 year old and older who have experienced symptoms in the previous two days.

"There have been years in the past when Tamiflu didn't treat the actual virus or only partially affect different strains," Raju said. "Usually within 48 hours of taking Tamiflu, they feel better right away."