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Flu now 'widespread' in Pennsylvania

Be prepared to break out the chicken noodle soup and tissues: Flu season is picking up.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is characterizing flu activity in the state as "widespread," with 1,159 cases reported since late September.

The hardest-hit areas have been in western Pennsylvania, but dozens of influenza cases have already been reported around the Philadelphia region: 38 in Philadelphia, 15 in Bucks County, 18 in Chester County, 47 in Delaware County and 50 in Montgomery County, according to health department data.

Pennsylvania is among the 10 states nationwide seeing widespread influenza activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And the number of cases is rising. In Pennsylvania, about half of all influenza cases reported thus far this flu season occurred between Dec. 15 and Dec. 21 (data after that time period isn't yet available).

The CDC's latest flu report says "flu activity continues to increase across the country" and "additional increases across the United States are expected in the coming weeks."

In New Jersey, health officials say there's only moderate flu activity, with most instances in the Northeast part of the state and few cases in South Jersey.

Flu cases typically peak from late January through early March, but the illness was particularly severe last December across the country.

Pennsylvania data shows that reports so far this season are far below last year's levels for December, but the number of cases is starting to climb several weeks earlier than usual.

The predominant flu virus this year has been H1N1, the CDC and state health departments say.

During the 2009 "swine flu" pandemic, that virus hit children and young adults particularly hard, even though the elderly are typically among the most vulnerable to influenza. A CDC health alert warns that if H1N1 "continues to circulate widely, illness that disproportionately affects young and middle-aged adults may occur."

The CDC is recommending everyone 6 months and older receive a flu vaccine. All of this season's vaccine formulations protect against H1N1, the CDC says.

There are other indications influenza activity is picking up. In recent weeks, the number of people searching for information about the flu has risen sharply, according to Google Flu Trends, which generally correlates with an increase in the illness.

Between Dec. 22 and Saturday, the number of flu searches rose 18 percent in Philadelphia, 33 percent in Pennsylvania and 91 percent in New Jersey compared with the previous week.

In all three areas, more people were looking up information on the flu than at anytime since late March or early April, according to Google's data.