EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 24, 2013

Flu outbreak may be easing

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — The flu appears to be leveling off at mid-season in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, but is still posing a risk, especially to older people.

New Hampshire has had 25 flu-related deaths.

“They are all elderly, all above the age of 80,” Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services said last week of what were then 20 flu-related deaths.

Massachusetts has had at least 18 deaths, though numbers are unofficial.

The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, told reporters in a recent teleconference this season is worse than average and bad for the elderly.

“This year, we are seeing a particularly severe season for the elderly,” he said.

The flu arrived about a month earlier than usual. It is widespread throughout the nation at mid-season.

But there are signs of encouragement.

“Overall activity is beginning to go down,” Frieden said.

New Hampshire and Massachusetts appear to be following the national trend.

“It looks like we’ve leveled off,” Dionne-Odom said.

The percentage of people with flu symptoms at outpatient clinics in Massachusetts had fallen from 4.4 percent the end of December to 2.43 percent last week.

“That may suggest we’ve already hit a peak, but it’s too early to call the all clear,” said Kevin Cranston, director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Infectious Disease.

College students are just returning from winter break, so the flu outlook could change, he said.

The CDC is reporting spot shortages of the flu vaccine, but is telling people to keep looking because it is still available.

“This is a very high demand year,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said in the CDC teleconference.

Some people in New Hampshire are finding some pharmacies don’t have the vaccine. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get a shot.

“We’re telling them to keep calling around, it’s still out there,” Dionne-Odom said of the vaccine.

There was a lot of news coverage about the flu recently in Massachusetts and that created demand, so it might seem like there’s a shortage, Cranston said.

Massachusetts recently was able to get an additional 8,000 doses, he said.

The CDC encourages people to use its “flu vaccine finder” available at flu.gov.

While Frieden acknowledges the vaccine is far from perfect, it remains, he said, “the best tool we have” for fighting the flu.

The vaccine can help.

“It’s still not too late,” Cranston said.

Health professionals recommend those who are coming down with the flu use anti-viral medicine such as Tamiflu in the first 48 hours. Tamiflu is available only by prescription.

Frieden said anti-viral drugs, given promptly, can shorten the duration of the illness and reduce the chance of having to go to the hospital.

Health officials urge people to be careful about spreading the illness to others.

“If you are sick, stay home from work or school so other people aren’t exposed,” Dionne-Odom said.

Older people should be kept away from ailing children. Frieden said it’s best not to have grandparents baby-sit an ill grandchild.