Although cold and flu season is already in full swing in Northeast Tennessee, half of the expected misery has been conspicuously absent so far - the flu.
"None of the sentinel physicians have reported a confirmed case of influenza," said Dr. Lawrence Moffatt, medical director and regional health officer for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department. "These are physicians who have been appointed to report the numbers of confirmed cases to the central office for statistical reasons."
There are four sentinel physicians for the Northeast Tennessee region, and the state health department uses information from these doctors to track diseases like influenza. While it's possible - even probable - that other doctors in the area have seen many influenza-like illnesses and even a case or two of lab-confirmed influenza this season, the fact that none of the four sentinel physicians have reported a confirmed flu case means that the flu is not very active in this area right now.
Not that anyone is complaining.
"Maybe the vaccine is working," Moffatt said. "That's its intended purpose. Increasingly, we are recommending and getting flu vaccine to schoolchildren, and schools are one of the prime ways that influenza is spread."
Another possible explanation is that the virus is simply running a little late this year.
"The crest of the wave can be as early as November or any time in December, or up through March. Sometimes it's earlier, and sometimes it's later," Moffatt said. "The peak season for influenza is generally said to be the last part of January and the first part of February, which we haven't quite gotten to."
Influenza figures from the rest of the state indicate that although flu activity in this region has been calm until now, the height of the season is not far away. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Tennessee's flu activity level was upgraded from "regional" to "widespread" during the last week of 2006.
"Maybe we're entering that peak season," Moffatt said. "With that in mind, we would encourage people to get the vaccine. There's plenty of it available at any local health department, and we would certainly encourage people to take advantage of that."
There are about 5,000 doses of flu vaccine left in Northeast Tennessee, with 700 to 800 doses in Washington County alone, Moffatt said. Health departments had a hard time getting rid of vaccine earlier in the season because community doctors and pharmacies received their vaccine shipments before public health officials did.
"Since we have not had a lot of influenza up to this point, I think people become relaxed. But if we start having an outbreak, you can bet that people will come in to get the vaccine then," Moffatt said. "We encourage them to do it."