Despite the Center for Disease Control and Prevention declaring the recent nationwide influenza outbreak to be one of the worst of the decade, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reports that flu rates in Santa Barbara County are actually somewhat lower than they were at this time last year.

However, the statement also reported an increase in cases since late December — a trend that the department warns could continue through spring. As a precaution, the university is offering free flu shots to students covered by the UC Student Health Insurance Plan, available without appointments on Tuesdays and Fridays from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at Student Health, or at regularly scheduled Immunization Clinics on campus Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Students who have their UC SHIP waived can still receive a vaccination shot for $20.

A recent statement made by the CDC maintains that 48 states had reported widespread influenza activity since the beginning of flu season in October, with 5,249 laboratory-confirmed hospitalizations. In light of the 700 reported flu cases in Boston, a public health emergency was declared by Mayor Thomas Menino, displaying a sharp increase beyond the 70 cases reported in Boston in all of last year.

Deputy Director of Community Health for the Santa Barbara Public Health Department Michele Mickiewicz said while the spread of influ- enza may seem like an epidemic, in actuality it is just a variation on the normal flu cycle.

“The flu is a very serious illness; 35,000 to 40,000 people in this country die from it every season,” Mickiewicz said. “But it’s not a pan- demic, it’s a normal flu season just occurring or peaking earlier than normal.” Due to the abnormally high number of flu cases so early in the season,

drug makers have reported shortages of the most widely used flu vaccine and of Tamiflu — a liquid antiviral drug used to treat young children who exhibit symptoms of the f lu.

According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, the FDA is working to address the shortages of vaccines and treatments in order to efficiently tackle the spreading virus.

“The FDA has been working with the manufacturer, Genentech, to increase supply and is reminding healthcare professionals that FDA- approved instructions on the label provide directions for pharmacists on how to make a liquid form of Tamiflu from the Tamiflu capsules if the oral suspension product is not available,” Hamburg said in a telephone news conference.

As for Santa Barbara, the County Public Health Department is advis- ing students to stay home from school if they show symptoms of the flu and to take simple but effective precautions, such as washing hands, to avoid contracting the illness.

“There’s still time to get vaccinated, and especially for people who live with young infants or elderly people who are [more susceptible] to getting the flu, it’s important to stay healthy,” Mickiewicz said. “You can [develop complications like] having trouble breathing, having a heart condition that’s exacerbated by the flu or getting dehydrated easily.”

Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headaches and fatigue. Although the flu itself will generally subside in a few days under proper conditions, the danger of developing more severe illnesses like pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections is still present. Children under the age of five and seniors over 65 years old are at an especially high risk for contracting influenza, according to the CDC website.

A version of this article appeared on page 6 of January 23rd, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.