January 7, 2013

Flu outbreaks in Maine far outstrip last season

Health officials emphasize that getting vaccinated can still help protect against severe illness.

By SUSAN MCMILLAN Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA - First there were the weeks of travel, family gatherings and parties, topped off with kisses to ring in the new year. Adults have since returned to work and children to school.

Now more people are showing up at health clinics and hospitals showing flu-like symptoms such as high fevers, sore throats, coughs, body aches and fatigue.

This flu season started early in Maine, with the first confirmed case in late October, and it already has surpassed last year's season in the number of reported outbreaks. Meanwhile, early data show Kennebec and Somerset counties experiencing the brunt of flu outbreaks.

State Epidemiologist Stephen Sears expects the season to follow a familiar pattern: starting slowly, peaking, then tapering off sometime in the spring.

"What we don't know is if we've reached the top of that bell-shaped curve or if we're still going up," Sears said. "That's why we're still emphasizing that people can still get vaccinated."

Influenza is not reportable for individual cases, but institutions such as schools and long-term care facilities must report outbreaks to the Maine Centers for Disease Control.

In the week ending Dec. 29, seven new outbreaks were reported to Maine CDC, bringing the number of outbreaks for the 2012-13 flu season to 32. There were 10 reported outbreaks during the 2011-12 season, which was milder than most.

Along with injuries from people falling on ice and a gastrointestinal bug going around, flu cases have increased the number of people admitted at MaineGeneral Medical Center in recent weeks.

The Augusta and Waterville hospital system has put limits on visitors, and last week it was running low on the nasal swabs used to test for flu.

"While we have limited supplies of the swabs, we have enough," said Barbara Crowley, executive vice president for the hospital and a pediatrician by training. "We are prioritizing who we test, so mostly the elderly and the young. Those are the most at risk for the increased severity of illness."

People who are not tested but have flu-like symptoms are receiving the same treatment, Crowley said.

She said that in years when flu arrives in Maine before Christmas, it's not unusual to see a spike in cases after the holidays.

According to preliminary data from Maine CDC, Kennebec and Somerset counties have experienced the most outbreaks this season, with six each. Only two counties, Knox and Piscataquis, have not reported any.

Of the 32 outbreaks, 27 have been at long-term care facilities, with two at kindergarten-through-grade 12 schools, one at a camp and two at other institutions.

A 6-year-old Benton girl, who had not been vaccinated, died from the flu last month. It was Maine's first pediatric flu death since 2010.

Laura Caron, a doctor at Manchester Family Health, said more people have requested the vaccine since news of the Benton girl's death. Getting vaccinated is especially important for older people, young children, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems, she said.

Caron said that although the vaccine doesn't entirely prevent illness in every person, she can see the difference in people who have received the shot or spray.

"They're getting a mild version that's more a day or two than a week-plus," Caron said.

This year's flu vaccine targets three strains, and it has proved a good match for the ones in circulation, including one known as H3N2. Sears said that strain has not circulated in several years, so few people have immunity to it.

Health officials recommend that people showing flu-like symptoms stay home. They also advise coughing into a sleeve or tissue and washing hands often.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at:

smcmillan@mainetoday.com

 

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