msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 12/19/2003 4:32:26 PM ET 2003-12-19T21:32:26

As millions of Americans get ready to visit family and friends for the holidays, a federal health official said Friday there was no reason to cancel travel plans because of the flu outbreak spreading across the country.

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At the same time, Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said the flu has caused the deaths of 42 children. She said it is too soon to determine how severe this flu season will be.

But in response to a question at a briefing Friday, she said that the number of cases — and the child deaths — indicate the outbreak could be classified as an epidemic.

She said the season has fallen under “typical” flu patterns, but it started much earlier than usual.

The child deaths from flu are “very sobering and very worrisome,” Gerberding said, adding that at least 16 of the children who died were ill prior to catching the flu and that more than half the deaths involved children under 5.

At least 36 states have been labeled by the agency as having widespread flu activity, and no state has been untouched.

The CDC also said an emergency operations center has been activated to help manage the nationwide outbreak. The operations center has been used earlier this year to help the agency manage SARS and West Nile virus activity in the United States. The worldwide SARS outbreak was the first major test of the operations center after the deadly respiratory disease was first detected in China last November.

With the flu season hitting early, many areas have reported shortages of flu shots as demand outpaced supply. But the government has worked to purchase remaining flu shot supplies for states.

Practice common sense hygiene
As the holiday travel crush begins, Gerberding said there are no risks of contracting the flu specifically associated with travel.

Holiday travelers should use common sense when dealing with the virus, such as washing hands frequently, especially after sneezing or coughing, and staying home if sick, she cautioned.

Test your IQ

Meanwhile CDC teams are working in states to evaluate the effectiveness of this year's flu shot.

Gerberding urged people not to crowd emergency rooms.The agency posted information on its Web site Friday to help people decide when they need to go to the hospital and when they should stay home.

“Flu is something that for the vast majority of people can be managed at home,” Gerberding said. “It’s not necessary to seek medical attention unless there is concern.”

Difficult to distinguish
The flu is difficult to distinguish from other winter viruses. In most cases, there is little reason for doctors to go to the trouble of identifying the culprit, which traditionally has required growing the virus in a culture, a process that takes two weeks.

Even if they do, chances are good they will find nothing.

Gerberding offered advice on how to distinguish the flu from other respiratory illnesses. A cold typically is associated with a runny nose, nasal congestion and sneezing, symptoms which are less common with the flu, Gerberding said.

While a cold begins gradually, the flu has a sudden onset and always has a fever.

Parents should watch for a number of warning signs: a child who has trouble breathing; a high temperature for more than four days; blue-tinged skin, not drinking enough fluids; irritability or seizures. And if the fever or symptoms return after the child begins to feel better, it could be a sign of bacterial infection and the parent should seek immediate medical attention, Gerberding said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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