EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Haverhill

January 10, 2013

Mass. flu season off to early start

18 deaths recorded so far

The influenza virus is reaching epidemic levels earlier than in previous years, prompting Merrimack Valley school nurses and health officials to urge residents to do everything they can to prevent catching and spreading the sickness.

Since the unofficial start of the flu season on Oct. 1, there have been approximately 700 confirmed cases of flu among Boston residents, a 10-fold increase when compared to the 70 cases confirmed all of last flu season. Comparable numbers for the Merrimack Valley were unavailable yesterday, but local health officials confirmed they are seeing a spike in cases. The flu season typically stretches through the end of March.

Rita Casper, director of nursing at the Andover public schools, said she is seeing “a spike in viruses, some with flu-like symptoms. ... There has definitely been an increase in the last three to four weeks. It’s been climbing.”

Yesterday she said she was in the process of sending out an advisory to students and parents notifying them of precautions they can take to ward off the disease.

“It’s not unusual to see some cases of flu, but we are seeing a spike that’s a little earlier than normal,” she said. “February is when flu season really takes off. It’s something we want to watch and curb as much as we can. A lot of that is preventative.”

In North Andover, awareness is also on the rise, although there are only four confirmed cases of the flu in town, according to Susan Sawyer, public health director.

“We want people to get flu shots,” she said.

At Lawrence General Hospital, there is a slight uptick in patients with the flu or having flu-like symptoms.

“We are running about 13 to 15 patients a week,” said Vanessa Kortze, spokeswoman for the hospital. “Those numbers are here a little earlier than usual, but still running close to normal.”

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