EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 4, 2012

Risk prevention

Flu season has started, but there's time for a shot

By John Toole and Douglas Moser
Staff writers

---- — New Hampshire is seeing “sporadic” flu activity in what federal health officials are saying is an early and potentially bad season.

The flu is all around.

Massachusetts and Maine are among seven states that have regional flu outbreaks within their borders, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

“It looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell,” CDC chief Dr. Thomas Frieden said.

In the Bay State, it’s too soon to tell.

“We have a few cases that are identified, so there’s some influenza out there,” said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, medical director for the Massachusetts Bureau of Infectious Disease Prevention.

The outlook for Massachusetts is hard to predict, he said.

“It seems to be what we usually see this time of year,” DeMaria said. “We have peak influenza activity in February, but we usually see a little bit of activity before the holidays.”

New Hampshire confirmed its first case of flu in late September, a couple of weeks before what the CDC regards as the official start of flu season.

“Right now, we’re seeing sporadic activity,” said Marcella Bobinsky, who oversees New Hampshire’s immunization program for the Division of Public Health Services.

That means isolated cases throughout the state of lab-confirmed cases with flu-like activity, she said.

“It’s not like every physician in the state is sending in samples,” she said.

Last year was a relatively light flu year for New Hampshire, she said.

“We had 130 lab confirmed cases during the last influenza season,” Bobinsky said.

This year could be different.

“The CDC message is essentially it’s coming,” Bobinsky said.

New Hampshire could be due for a bad year, but it’s not certain.

“We never know until we’ve finished that flu season,” Bobinsky said.

There are no big outbreaks yet on the ground at local schools.

“We’re not seeing any issues,” said Laura Nelson, Derry Cooperative School District superintendent.

Derry hasn’t had a case yet confirmed by a doctor and school attendance remains good.

The district doesn’t advocate for flu shots, but does encourage students to wash their hands and cough in their sleeves to keep from spreading germs in flu season.

“We are constantly reminding children of that,” Nelson said.

Officials in the Windham and Pelham school districts said they had not yet had cases of the flu.

State and federal health officials are encouraging people to get vaccinated.

This is national influenza vaccination week and officials are emphasizing that it’s not too late to get a shot.

“Vaccine is widely available through local pharmacies and physician offices,” said Garrett Simonsen, coordinator for the Greater Derry Public Health Network.

New Hampshire tracks immunization of people under 18 and said 62,000 doses have thus far been administered.

“We’ve got a lot of vaccine out there and a lot who have been vaccinated,” Bobinsky said. “All those kids can get vaccinated at no cost for the vaccine,” though they might have to pay an administrative or office co-pay fee.

DeMaria said about half the people in Massachusetts get vaccinated, wtih the rate among seniors climbing to 70 to 80 percent.

Nationally, officials estimated more than one-third of Americans have received flu shots so far and said this year’s vaccine is a good match for the strains seen.

“It’s absolutely not too late,” Bobinsky said.

Getting vaccinated now will help protect people soon.

“It takes a couple of weeks for the antibodies to build up,” she said.

Health officials have documented at least a couple of A-virus strains circulating.

“The A-virus tends to cause serious symptoms because it tends to be more changeable and more mutatable, so people tend to have less leftover resistance to it,” DeMaria said. “The B-viruses tend not to change as much and you tend to have more immunity.”

The flu claims about 25,000 lives each year in the U.S.

Those at risk include children 5 and under, adults who are pregnant, those 65 and older, people whose immune system is compromised or have chronic medical conditions, residents of health-care facilities and those who are very obese.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, runny nose, fatigue, head and body aches.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.