By Bill Kirk
---- — 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.”
She added, “we are seeing an uptick, but it’s manageable.”
Mary Connolly, community health nurse in Haverhill, said she is hearing reports from area hospitals that it’s higher than normal.
“But it’s not the epidemic I heard it was reported in Boston,” she said.
She’s heard of people with headaches, fever, body aches and some respiratory symptoms, even though they may have received the flu shot.
“Getting the flu shot reduces the severity and duration of symptoms,” she said.
In Boston, meanwhile, the situation has reached epidemic levels.
“This is the worst flu season we’ve seen since 2009, and people should take the threat of flu seriously,” said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. “This is not only a health concern, but also an economic concern for families, and I’m urging residents to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family. If you’re sick, please stay home from work or school.”
Flu cases are now accounting for over 4 percent of all emergency department visits at Boston hospitals, compared to about 1 percent during non-influenza season.
Of influenza cases reported to date in Boston residents, 25 percent have been ill enough to require hospitalization. Since Oct. 1, four Boston residents, all seniors, have died from flu-related illnesses. Certain people, including the elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or other conditions), are at greater risk for serious illness if they get influenza. Some individuals may not be at risk for severe illness themselves, but can transmit the infection to their families, friends, and patients.
State public health officials are reporting 18 flu-related deaths in Massachusetts already this season.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health says the state is one of many across the country reporting above average flu hospitalization rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned of a harsh flu season, which usually peaks in midwinter.
Casper said that most students should already have received the vaccine, but that younger students needing a second dose should make sure they call the public health department or their primary care physician.
Further, she said, there have already been some cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, reported in Massachusetts. She urged people to get the pertussis vaccination as well.
Sawyer, of North Andover, said senior citizens are susceptible to contracting pneumonia if they get the flu. As such, the town is holding a pneumonia vaccine clinic later this month.
While there have been no deaths reported in the Merrimack Valley, health officials across the state have recorded 18 deaths from influenza so far this season, according to state Bureau of Infectious Disease Director Kevin Cranston.
While it’s still too soon for a full assessment, the flu season is “off to an early start” and is so far “consistent with a moderately severe season,” Cranston told reporters on Wednesday.
“The last two seasons were actually quite mild,” Cranston said. This season’s vaccines “anticipated the viral strains very well,” and there are “ample supplies” of the vaccines, Cranston said. “The vaccine is a good and vigorous response to the epidemic,” Cranston said.
The medication Tamiflu is also effective against this season’s strains, Cranston said. The epidemic is region-wide, and the deaths have occurred “overwhelmingly among oldest individuals,” Cranston said.
The hospitalization rates are also “significant,” Cranston said. In addition to influenza, the state has experienced an outbreak of norovirus, also known as the stomach flu.
“We’ve seen a lot of norovirus this year,” Cranston said.
Material from the State House News Service and Associated Press was used in this report.
- People who have the flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (very tired)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
What to do if you have the flu
- Stay home
- Avoid contact with other people
- Young children, people 65 or older, and people with asthma, diabetes or women who are pregnant, should talk to a health care provider about whether they need to be examined if they get flu symptoms.
- Rest and drink plenty of fluids.
- Children should not return to school until they are fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever reducing medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
How to prevent catching and spreading the flu
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, or cough into your sleeve to prevent the spread of droplets that can contain germs.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds or more or use an alcohol-based hand rub if water is not available.
- Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes to prevent spreading germs.
- It is not too late to get a flu shot. If you have not yet received a flu shot you can contact your doctor, your town's health department or your local pharmacy to get one.
For more flu information check the Department of Public Health website -- www.mass.gov.
Source: Rita Casper RN, MBA, District Coordinator for Nursing Services, Andover Public Schools and Mass. General web site.