A raft of viral diseases termed "flu" by just about everyone seems to have descended on the Washington area, but doctors and public health officials say the epidemic of genuine influenza that has gripped 10 Western states has not yet arrived in the nation's capital.
"The term 'flu' has become a wastebasket word," according to Dr. John De Simone, vice chairman of emergency medicine at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. "There's a whole spectrum of viral illnesses out there . . . and the 'Philippine' flu is just one of them."
"We are seeing some cases of influenza" at George Washington University Medical Center, according to Dr. Thomas Turbiak, "more in the last week to 10 days. But we are not seeing an epidemic, and we are not seeing the fatalities."
"There don't seem to be more kids out than usual," said a Montgomery County public schools staff member. "But just about every grown-up I know has had it -- including yours truly."
While there's no official epidemic here, it seems that everybody's either had "it" -- the flu, the bug, the chills and sweats and muscle aches and what the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta calls "extreme malaise" -- or knows someone who has.
"It" ranges from a gastrointestinal infection that marched into Washington with the Inaugural visitors ("chills and fever, nausea, diarrhea, respiratory symptoms," De Simone ticks off) to a sometimes virulent type-A Philippine flu ("headaches, severe muscle soreness, extreme fatique, higher temperatures, sore throat, cough"). It also comes in Russian and Singapore type-B varieties.
"But the treatment's the same for everybody, and the things to watch out for are the same," De Simone concluded: "Aspirin or acetaminophen aspirin substitute every four hours, lots of fluids and rest."
Doctors in the Washington area say that information they have on the "flu" is mostly anecdotal. Adults appear to be more susceptible, although school attendance is generally a "more sensitive test," according to D.C. public health official Dr. Martin Levy.
More adults than usual seem to be dropping by clinics and emergency rooms. "People who might ordinarily sort of work through it are feeling bad enough to go to bed," said De Simone.
"But what physicians are seeing -- and what those physicians who have been sick are saying -- is that you go along feeling fair for a couple of hours, and all of a sudden you're running a high fever, even 104 or 105 , and that alone is enough to make you feel pretty bad."
Doctors say many people are concerned by reports from other parts of the country that the flu may lead to pneumonia or other complications. Centers for Disease Control received reports of 931 deaths from influenza and pneumonia in major metropolitan areas last week, up from 790 the previous week and 517 the last week of December.
"And they're right to be concerned," said De Simone. "The last thing we need is 50 more people a day coming in here to get chest X-rays. On the other hand, I took my kid in for X-rays the other day."
"We can't do a lot for anybody," said Vivienne Stearns of Greater Southeast. "Some doctoring, some assurance and some cough syrup."