Lauryn Schroeder

Enterprise Data Reporter

Filtering by Tag: Chicago

Safety in Lincoln Park: What community members are saying

[vimeo 54382270 w=500 h=281] CHICAGO — Chicago's Lincoln Park is home to DePaul University students and many young professionals working in the in the city. I interviewed residents near the Fullerton stop to see what they think about their safety in the community.


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Ritualistic use of mercury remains a mystery—but health effects aren't

Journalists from Medill Reports visited seven different botanicas in Pilsen, Humboldt Park and Logan Square looking for mercury. They were met with some resistance, and none of the botanica owners and employees said they had mercury for sale. Botanicas typically serve members of the close-knit Hispanic communities in those areas and are wary of outsiders. Samantha Andreacchi and Erica Tempesta contributed to this report. To see the full version click here Botanicas are Hispanic alternative medicine shops that sell religious and magical paraphernalia and folk medicine remedies, including herbs, perfumes, oils, and candles. There are over 20 botanicas in Chicago, typically located in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.

CHICAGO — When Arnold Wendroff asked his special education ninth grade chemistry class in June 1989 in Brooklyn, N.Y.  “What is mercury used for?” he didn’t get the answer he was expecting.

“I asked…thinking someone would likely know a thermometer,” he said. “And a Puerto Rican boy named Jamie raised his hand, and instead of saying a thermometer he said, ‘My mother uses it in Santeria.’”

Santeria is a magico-religious practice that originated in Cuba. It combines the magical practices of the Yoruba people from Africa with some of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.

The religion is particularly popular in Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and it has also spread into the U.S.

An exact number of Santeria practitioners in the U.S. is nearly impossible to calculate, said Migene Gonzalez-Whippler in his bookSanteria: The Religion.  People who practice Santeria often keep their faith hidden because of the stigma behind the religion, which is typically associated with animal sacrifice, black magic and spiritual possession, where a spirit physically takes over a person’s body.

The young boy said his mother sprinkled mercury on their floors to keep away “brujos,” or witches, and she bought the mercury at a botanica in Brooklyn, said Wendroff, who has since dedicated his life to educating the public, especially ethnic communities, on the real dangers of the ritualistic use of mercury.

To see if this was true, he asked Jaime to buy him some mercury the next time Jaime’s mother went to the botanica, and sure enough, he did.

“I paid him a dollar and he gave me a colorless gelatin capsule about half full of what was obviously mercury, a total gross weight of 7.2 grams,” Wendroff said.

Mercury is a naturally occurring element found in air, water and soil, but it is also a neurotoxin that can cause various health problems, including psychological and physical symptoms, for someone who is exposed to it.  (For more information on the health effects of mercury exposure, see the infographic to the right.)

There are three types of mercury: organic mercury that is typically found in fish, inorganic mercury, or mercury salt, and elemental mercury.

Elemental mercury is the most common form and is the only metal that is liquid at room temperature.  It is found in common items and products, such as certain batteries, antique clocks, mirrors and thermometers, and energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs and other fluorescent bulbs.

Mercury capsules, similar to the ones Wendroff described, were once available and may still be available right here in Chicago, said Esther Sciammarella, executive director of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition.

The Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition, established in 1991, is an organization that promotes healthy living in Chicago’s Hispanic community to help prevent chronic disease and health disparities in the ethnic group.

Health effects of mercury.

“You can go to a Santeria shop and ask for a container of mercury,” Sciammarella said.  “Go to a botanica and ask for ‘azogue.’” Azogue is a Spanish word for quicksilver or mercury.

Botanicas are Hispanic alternative medicine shops, typically filled with herbs, perfumes, natural remedies, oils, sprays, religious candles and other magical paraphernalia. And there are over 20 botanicas in Chicago, most of which are in communities where the Hispanic population is prevalent, including Pilsen, Logan Square and Humboldt Park.

Sciammarella worked with the Chicago Department of Public Health’s Office of Hispanic Affairs in 2000 on a study that addressed the use of mercury in the city’s Hispanic community.

The study found that Hispanics in Chicago use mercury for religious purposes and as a form of folk medicine. The study also found that “the mercury was available through natural goods stores called botanicas, mystics and curanderos” which "claimed that mercury serves to cure ailments, provide spiritual benefits, and/or solve domestic issues.”

But Richard Gelb, who has been a santero — or Santeria priest — since 1990, has never heard of mercury being used in Santeria rituals. Gelb, 62, is the assistant principal and an English teacher at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen.

Still, Dr. Daniel Hryhorczuk, director of environmental health at the center for global health at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, conducted a study on the topic in 2000 with the Illinois Department of Public Health, and his research yielded similar results as Sciammarella’s, showing the city’s Hispanic community used mercury.

“It is not limited to one Hispanic community; there are actually several different communities that use mercury in either cultural or religions practices and also several different religions—it’s not just one religion,” he said.

Hryhorczuk said mercury use in the study was primarily tied to Santeria, though he heard it is also used in voodoo. He found that outside of religious practices, members of certain communities were also using mercury to treat ‘empacho,' which is a Hispanic folk illness typically characterized by symptoms such as indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting or lack of appetite.

“It was also being used by some members of communities...who believed that injecting yourself with mercury would make you stronger,” he said. "And that was one of the most dangerous practices that we encountered in our clinical practice."

Dr. Estella Hernandez confirmed that some Hispanics in Pilsen, the largest Hispanic community in Chicago, buy mercury from local botanicas. She is a doctor of family and bariatric medicine at NutriMedicos, a physician-guided diet and weight management clinic in Pilsen.

Hernandez said she has seen a few patients who have told her they ingest mercury for medicinal purposes.

“One of the conditions they use it for is empacho,” she said, confirming what Hryhorczuk found during his Chicago study. “But it’s not something that’s scientifically and medically based.”

And when patients tell her they’ve taken the metal for health purposes, Hernandez said she warns them about the dangerous health effects of mercury, as she does with any other treatment or practice that may cause them harm.

Sherrie Elzinga, assistant to the director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, said that the Illinois EPA is also aware that people use mercury for religious purposes, particularly in the Hispanic population.

She noted it’s not illegal to possess the toxic metal, “but we don’t suggest that you possess it, and we suggest you dispose of it properly.”

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission allows the sale of mercury as long as the product is properly labeled as “Not Recommended for Household Use.”

Elzinga said the Illinois EPA does not have an initiative at this time to address the ritualistic use of mercury in Chicago’s Hispanic communities.

Even though mercury use has been known to be prevalent within certain communities in Chicago, both Sciammarella and Hryhorczuk experienced community resistance during their respective studies.

The study done by Sciammarella and the Chicago Department of Public Health ended up focusing on education and resulted in the creation of informational brochures. These brochures were printed in Spanish and handed out within the community.

And the study that Hryhorczuk and the Illinois Department of Public Health intended to do was never completed.

“We started to get some pushback from the community,” he said. “They felt that this was intrusive because mercury was being used in some of their religious practices, and they felt that this was an intrusion on their religious freedom.”

Hryhorczuk said to successfully complete an in-depth survey about mercury use in the Hispanic community, “you would need to be either an anthropologist or ethnographer who builds trust with the community, who can speak the language and who can go in there and actually work with members of the community.

“To have outside researchers, like university scientists, come in and do this is very difficult”.

Even a little bit of mercury exposure can be dangerous, and most people are not always aware that they have been exposed. This is typically because mercury is not just used in traditional and religious practices—it’s still found in common items and products.

When mercury is exposed to air it, immediately starts giving off fumes that can be inhaled, and it will continue to evaporate as long as the little metal balls are in the atmosphere, environment, or room, said Dr. Susan Buchanan, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health.

According to Melaney Arnold, communications director at the Illinois Department of Public Health, the main way people are exposed to the toxic metal is by inhaling invisible fumes, allowing it to be absorbed by the lungs.

However, there are other ways people can be exposed.

“Mercury can enter the body through the skin, especially if it contacts a cut or wound,” Arnold said. “If you swallow mercury, very little is absorbed. Most of the mercury is eliminated through the digestive tract.”

Buchanan described dramatic symptoms associated with severe poisonings including upset stomach, mental confusion, irritability, memory loss, tremors, numbness, tingling and skin peeling.

But mercury exposure and poisoning severely affects children, Buchanan said.

“We are concerned about mercury exposure in children because the brains are still developing at least through age 6 and probably longer,” she said.

If children have been exposed to elemental mercury, they will typically have a combination of a toxic reaction with an allergic reaction, Hryhorczuk said.

“We can see this illness called acrodynia, or pink disease, and that manifests itself as rashes over the body which looks like an allergic reaction,” he said.

For adults, mercury exposure is more detrimental to the central nervous system, Hryhorczuk said.

According to Buchanan, you should never throw away or vacuum mercury because it can disperse the particles throughout a large area. She suggested using two pieces of paper to roll the metal balls off the floor and into an envelope.

But she said the best option is to call a local health department to take care of it. In addition to the health departments, there are free programs that help to safely dispose of mercury-containing items, including the Illinois EPA’s Household Hazardous Waste Collection Program.

“It’s not going anywhere,” Buchanan said. “So as long as it’s around, it is going to give off those mercury fumes.”

The highest concentration of botanicas are in Pilsen, Logan Square, Humboldt Park and South Lawndale. Pilsen is the largest Hispanic community in Chicago.

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CDC reports flu no longer widespread in Illinois

Illinois Department of Public Health CHICAGO — The worst may be over for the flu season that hit earlier than expected this season. Influenza levels in Illinois are no longer “widespread,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data.

Illinois has experienced a high level of influenza activity for the last six weeks, but the CDC reported Friday that numbers have been gradually decreasing over the last month. The decrease has moved Illinois out of the widespread category.

The CDC reported that depending on the severity of the season, between 3,000 and 50,000 people die in the United States each year from influenza-related illnesses. Melaney Arnold from the Illinois Department of Public Health said that there have been 98 flu-related deaths in Illinois this year, with 651 total hospitalizations.

According to the department’s most recent data released last week, outpatient visits for influenza-like illness is now 2.6 percent, which is a huge decrease from the 3.3 percent the previous week. In addition, Illinois’ influenza activity is now being monitored and reported on a regional scale, instead of a widespread basis.

This flu season started in early December, which is earlier than previous years, according to the CDC. Despite the early start, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC's director, said in a congressional hearing that this season did not reach "pandemic proportions."

Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the CDC, said 22 states are still reporting a widespread influenza activity level — a decrease from 31 states in the previous week and 38 states the week before.

“Overall it’s been a moderate-to-severe season,” Allen said. “Currently the influenza activity still persists but it’s going down at a steady pace.”

He said the number of deaths and hospitalizations are similar to the results of previous years that had a H3N2 strain circulating. The H3N2 strain, which is also known as influenza A, tends to be more severe. The CDC reported that as of Tuesday, there have been 78 pediatric deaths this season. Typically this number averages about 100 each year and Allen said unfortunately this was not a surprising result. He added that there was one thing the CDC did not expect this season: The vaccine’s effectiveness in different age groups.

Overall the vaccine was 56 percent effective, Allen said. The CDC reported that it was less effective against the influenza A strain — protecting 47 percent — and it protected 67 percent of those who received the vaccine from influenza B.

“Those are the typical numbers we’re going to see when the vaccine is well-matched with the strains being circulated,” he said. “But we did experience the biggest change in those 65 and older.”

According to the CDC, only 9 percent of people 65 years or older were protected from influenza A after receiving the vaccine, and about 90 percent of flu-related deaths this year were those in this same age range.

Allen said there are two important factors that determine the vaccine’s effectiveness: One is whether or not the vaccination is a close enough match to the strains circulating. The second is the age of the person receiving the vaccine and any chronic health problems they may have. He said that studies have shown that both age and health can diminish the body’s response to the vaccine and make someone more vulnerable for infection or further complications.

Even though the benefits for the vaccine vary for different age groups, Allen said it does not mean the public should lose faith in its overall effectiveness. It can still help to prevent the illness from spreading to others.

“It’s the best we have at the moment,” he said. “And because it’s the best we have, the best thing you can do is get vaccinated if you’re living with someone that’s very young or over 65.

“Bottom line is we need to advance the research on influenza vaccinations but we’re just not there yet.”

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Typhoid fever case confirmed at Purdue University

The graph represents the most recent data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Purdue University and Indiana public health officials are reaching out to students, faculty and visitors who may have eaten in three locations on campus in West Lafayette, after a food handler tested positive for typhoid fever on Tuesday.

The unnamed employee was wearing gloves, but could have spread the illness while at work from Jan. 23 to Jan. 25, according to a press release issued by Richard Ghiselli, head of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue. Anyone who ate at the Boiler Bistro, John Purdue Room, or the coffee shop in Marriott Hall during this time may be at risk.

The illness can be treated with prescribed antibiotics and a vaccine is available for those who plan to travel abroad. If left untreated, the disease can last up to a month and serious complications may occur including tears or hemorrhaging in the intestinal track.

"We want all of our students and other patrons to know that we put their health first," Ghiselli said. "We are informing our students and patrons and are working together with the Indiana State Department of Health.”

The Purdue employee contracted the disease while traveling abroad and will not return to work until cleared by the state health department, Ghiselli said.

Lola Russell, a spokeswoman for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the disease is rare in the United States — about 400 cases each year — more than 22 million cases worldwide are reported annually and an estimated 200,000 people die due to the illness or complications. Most of the reported cases in the United States come from those who had recently traveled abroad.

In Illinois, 240 cases of typhoid fever have been reported since 2000, according to Melaney Arnold, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Russel said the bacteria that causes typhoid fever, which is a type of salmonella known as S. typhi, spreads through contaminated food, water or other beverages.

“The salmonella bacteria only lives in humans who are contaminated and it’s carried in their blood streams,” she said. “But people who have recovered from the disease can also be what we call carriers, and they can spread it to other people.”

According to the CDC, symptoms typically appear within eight to 14 days but can begin up to 30 days after exposure. Sometimes patients will have symptoms that gradually worsen each day, while others experience a continuous rise and fall during the day. The most common symptoms include a high fever — usually ranging between 103-104 degrees — weakness, stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, headache, diarrhea, or loss of appetite. In some cases, a rash of rose-colored spots may appear on the torso.

The CDC says the risk of getting typhoid fever is highest for those who travel in southern Asia, in particular East and Southeast Asia. Other areas of heightened risk include Africa, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. A longer stay in these areas can increase the risk of infection but some travelers have contracted the disease in less than a week where typhoid fever is endemic.

Russel said the vaccination will help prevent typhoid fever while abroad and should be administered about two weeks before a trip to developing nations where hand washing and sanitation aren’t as common. Purdue Student Health Center has announced that, under these circumstances, it will offer advice or health care without charge to anyone who is showing symptoms and ate at Marriott Hall locations during the potential contamination days.

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Stomach flu quarantines 700 inmates at Cook County Jail

Courtesy of Cook County Sheriff's Department: The Cook County Jail is now in quarantine after a stomach flu outbreak in one of its largest divisions. CHICAGO — An outbreak of the stomach flu in about 30 prisoners has prompted a quarantine of one of the largest divisions in the Cook County Jail, officials said Wednesday.

The quarantine of Division II will remain in effect until further notice, according to a press release issued by Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart. Detainees in the affected unit will have limited movement and visitations will be prohibited during the quarantine.

To prevent further exposure, the division’s living, dining, shower, toilet areas as well as all high-touch surface areas are being disinfected. The inmates' linens have been changed and are being laundered separately, Dart said.

Sophia Ansari, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said as of Wednesday afternoon about 30 inmates have fallen ill. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.

Ansari said the quarantine could possibly put pressure on the jail’s finances over the next few days.

“The inmates housed in Division II are more minimum-security prisoners and they’re the ones that help out in a lot of the programs within the jail,” she said.  Because of the quarantine, prisoners within this division will be unable to participate. As a result, medium-security inmates may be needed to cover the food transportation and cleaning responsibilities.

Ansari said medium-security inmates would require more supervision from officers and could drive up costs. Additional staff members might also be needed if the flu bug continues to spread.

Jail employees from the quarantined division are being closely monitored to prevent an outbreak within the staff, according to the release. Exposure to sick detainees is being limited and the sheriff’s office is closely monitoring the jail to ensure the virus does not spread to other divisions.

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Illinois flu death toll reaches 50, vaccines still available

By Lauryn Schroeder/MEDILL CHICAGO — The influenza virus is still at large in Illinois, but health officials are saying the worst may be over.

Sabrina Miller, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said the state’s death toll has reached 50 and approximately 476 people have been hospitalized in the intensive care unit for flu-related illnesses. The previous week, there were 27 reported deaths and 370 hospitalizations.

However, the department reported an encouraging steady two-week decline in hospitalizations. Nine patients in Illinois were hospitalized with flu-related symptoms as of Friday, a significant decrease from the 30 patients the previous week.

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Illinois is among the 30 states still experiencing a high flu activity level since the surge over the holidays.

These numbers are still discouraging for Illinois, considering there were no deaths due to the influenza virus in 2012.  Health officials continue to promote the flu vaccine and say it is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus and avoid falling ill.

CDC spokesman Curtis Allen, said approximately 129.2 million doses of the influenza vaccine has been distributed through the end of last week. Vaccine manufacturers anticipate 145 million doses total will be produced to cover the demand. He said most of the vaccinations are distributed to pharmacies and clinics in September, but the majority is given out from October to early January.

“It’s not unusual for some places to not have the vaccinations this late in the season because so many have already been distributed earlier in the year,” he said. “But it’s definitely not too late.”

Allen did say it may be necessary for some people to call their local pharmacies or clinics to make sure they have the vaccine in stock before heading outside.

Illinois Department of Public Health Director LaMar Hasbrouck spoke with Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday about the severity of this flu season. He said that some spot shortages of the vaccine is a good thing because it means more people are getting the message and taking action against the virus. While there may be some areas that are in short supply, Hasbrouck said statewide shortage will not be an issue in Illinois.

Allen said prices for the vaccine typically range anywhere from $9 to $16 but can reach $40 depending on the medical provider. Receiving the shot from a private physician or clinic may cost more, but some insurance policies cover the shot's fee. After the shot, it takes approximately two weeks for the body to build up antibodies against the influenza virus. The vaccine protects against four strains circulating this year, including the H3N2 virus, which has caused the majority of flu-related complications for patients this year.

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Bedbugs are biting but Chicago can still sleep tight

Chicago bed bug reports have gone up to 1,533 from 1,365 in one year, according to the City of Chicago Building Department. CHICAGO — The pest control company Orkin sent Chicagoans into an itchy panic Tuesday after awarding the city its worst ranking: most treatments for bedbug infestation. While being No. 1 is not the best news for Chicago, experts say it’s rash to correlate the number of treatments with the number of infestations in the city.

“Chicago may be the No. 1 for Orkin … but to say that bedbugs are the worst in Chicago is an overstatement,” said research entomologist for BedBug Central Jeff White.

The New Jersey-based company works as an information resource and website for bedbugs and bug-related issues, such as prevention and effective treatment methods.

White said bedbugs have always been around, but recently there has been a shortage of new pesticides introduced into the market. This has allowed them to spread quickly and easily following a surge on the East Coast in 2006.

“The introduction of DDT during WWII pretty much eliminated them,” he said.

“But all pests, not just bedbugs, can and will build up a resistance to pesticides being used against them.”

DDT was banned in the U.S. in 1972. Resistance in this case, does not mean the chemical will fail to kill the bugs and their eggs. It means that to be effective, more of the chemical must be used and the bugs need to be exposed longer for the treatment to work, White said.

After eight years as an entomologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health, Curt Colwell is no stranger to Chicago’s bedbug issues. He has taken calls from all over the state regarding bedbug infestation, with a majority coming from the Chicago area. He started to notice a higher number of bedbug reports in 2007 and the number has steadily increased since then.

According to the City of Chicago Building Department, in 2011 1,365 calls were made to 311 reporting a bedbug infestation and in 2012 the number jumped to 1,533.

“It exploded around 2010,” Cowell said. “I’d say approximately 30 percent of my pest-related calls are about bedbugs each day.”

Collwell said bedbugs are particularly hard to get rid of because removing them requires locating them, and most people don’t want to stay in an infested house to hunt them down. Collwell said there’s no way to know for sure if Chicago is now the worst city in the country.“I don’t know if Chicago has any more bedbugs than Cincinnati does,” he said, referring to that city’s Orkin rank as No. 1 in 2011. “But I don’t think anyone really has those kinds of numbers to determine exactly how bad it is.”

Bedbugs are not capable of transmitting diseases. Some people experience itchy red marks after being bitten, while others don’t notice any bites at all. Both Collwell and White said the biggest problem for those with bedbugs is not removing them or being bitten— it’s the toll they take on people’s lives during and after removal.

“I would say for the average person the emotional and psychological toll is way greater than the physical one,” Colwell said.

Chicago resident Tim Gagarin knows first-hand how bad the bedbugs can be. He started to notice them in his apartment at the end of December. After several treatments Gagarin said he thought they were gone but found more on Jan. 2. He said his life was already stressful as a DePaul University student working part-time, and the bedbugs added even more.

“It’s felt like the home I’ve built for myself here in Chicago has been thrown away,” he said. “Precautionary and necessary measures left me with pretty much the clothing on my back and a few important pieces of sentiment.”

After getting rid of his furniture, sealing up all unneeded clothing, and spending approximately $600 on cleaning and pesticides, Gagarin hasn’t seen any more bugs. He said even though they’re gone, he still has trouble sleeping and looks for them all the time.

“I sit for hours at the edge of my bed before I work up the courage to get in,” he said. “I’m looking for bugs everywhere now. Even in my car and workplace.”

Gagarin said he hasn’t decided whether to move to another apartment when his lease ends in April. The building’s management company has credited some of Gagarin’s losses against his rent and it’s possible the problem could follow him to a new place.

“The best way to get rid of them is to treat them in the environment they came from,” he said. “All things considered I’m lucky my apartment management is willing to help the situation.”

Thankfully there are effective treatment options available. Those with bedbugs can use what White calls a “multidisciplinary approach,” which involves buying “do it yourself” pesticides, bed casings and interception devices that prevent the bugs from spreading. There is also the option of calling in a professional pest control company. These companies will treat the area with pesticides or perform a heating method for removal.

White said he would recommend using heat because he believes it to be the most effective. The treatment involves a professional company heating the infested area to 120 degrees Fahrenheit for several hours.

“Bugs and their eggs will die rapidly under that kind of heat,” he said. “If done right, it can eliminate most, if not all the bugs in just one treatment.”

No matter what option is chosen, White said it is crucial that those with bedbugs do their homework and get reliable information. White also produces BedBug TV, a miniseries online where he goes through the different techniques for removal and answers common bedbug questions.

Even though Chicago would rather be first on another list, White said this may help the public become more aware and educated about bedbugs.

“The lack of public awareness is what increases the spread of bedbugs dramatically,” he said. “Now everyone’s becoming educated, it’s just taking us longer to get there.”

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Flu epidemic kills 27, hospitalizes 369 in Illinois so far

Illinois Department of Public Health UPDATE: Chicago pedestrians talk about the flu vaccine and this season's influenza virus.

CHICAGO — With the flu reaching epidemic levels around Christmas, health officials are estimating that the death toll has reached 27 in Illinois and nearly 370 people have been hospitalized with flu-related illnesses, state health officials are reporting.

The Illinois Department of Public Health is not expecting a decrease any time soon with more reported cases from previous weeks coming in. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, 47 states are now experiencing an elevated level of influenza activity. Officials said the season has started earlier and the cases are more severe than in recent years.

The number of flu cases declined last week in Chicago, but experts say conditions may continue for the next several weeks. Curtis Allen, a spokesperson for the CDC, said Chicago experienced an early outbreak of the influenza virus so the high activity level might decrease over the next 10-12 weeks. But he said the most accurate prediction the CDC could make about the flu season, is that it is unpredictable.

“Unfortunately, we really don’t know much about the type of flu season we’re having until after its over,” Allen said. “We’re learning a lot, but the most educational part is when the season is over.”

On Friday the CDC reported that 7.3 percent of deaths last week were caused by pneumonia and the flu, just above the epidemic status of 7.2 percent. While the numbers are high compared to previous years, some medical experts say there are misconceptions about the flu virus that are causing a great amount of unnecessary concern.

Dr. David Zich, internal medicine and emergency medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said the flu season has been worse than normal, but preparing for the unexpected is part of emergency medicine.

The majority of flu cases reported to the CDC have been influenza A (H3N2), followed by influenza B viruses, and a small number of the 2009 H1N1 — more commonly known as the swine flu. Zich said when influenza A viruses circulated before, flu seasons were more severe, but the majority of the public has no reason to greatly fear the flu.

“This is not a super bug,” he said. “It may be a little bit more potent, but it’s not something to be very worried about. The majority of healthy people should be over it within five to seven days.”

As of last Wednesday, Northwestern Memorial Hospital was no longer on emergency-room bypass. Even though many hospitals have been swamped with flu patients, Zich said the hospital, not an urgent care center, is the best place to go if you get the flu and have other significant health problems. Hospitals will have the equipment to test for pneumonia and other respiratory complications, he said.

Dr. Paul Heidel, medical director for the Ottawa County Health Department in Michigan, previously worked on a national level with flu-related issues for the U.S. Air Force. He said the most common symptoms of the flu this year have been sore throat, headache, body aches, high fever and a cough from inflammation in the respiratory track. For those worried about getting ill, Heidel said it is not too late to get the vaccine, which is on average 62 percent effective.

“That doesn’t mean that you won’t get the flu though,” he said. “The body takes two weeks to build up antibodies so you’re not fully protected right away and there are other strains that it doesn’t cover.”

Heidel still recommended the shot despite these factors because it can prevent more severe cases and help the average person recover faster if they are infected. He also said getting the vaccine can reduce the risk of passing on the illness to someone more likely to have further complications.

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Chicago residents rush for - and resist - flu shots

See what Chicago pedestrians think about flu shots and this flu season. Click here to view the video on Chicago Medill reports.

The hard-hitting influenza virus has already sent a reported 370 Illinois residents to the hospital this season. These are the latest figures, updated through Friday, from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The threat of getting sick has some rushing to get the flu vaccine, while others are skeptical about its effectiveness.

See who has gotten sick, who received the flu shot and what people think about this season's outbreak.

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