In this Feb. 9 file photo, lab technologist Sharda Modi tests a patient's swab for a flu infection at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga. On Friday, a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the flu season may finally be leveling off.

In this Feb. 9 file photo, lab technologist Sharda Modi tests a patient’s swab for a flu infection at Upson Regional Medical Center in Thomaston, Ga. On Friday, a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the flu season may finally be leveling off.

BIDDEFORD — Although health officials say the number of patients reporting flu symptoms seems to be leveling off, so far this has been reported to be one of the worst seasons for the flu.

In addition, preliminary figures suggest the flu vaccine has been only about 36 percent effective overall in preventing the illness, according to The Associated Press.

But Sen. Angus King, I-Maine and a number of his colleagues are sponsoring legislation that could prevent future cases of influenza.

Legislation supported King would fund research to create a universal flu vaccine that could be administrated only once or twice to provide a lifetime of protection, states a press release from the senator.

King is a cosponsor of the Flu Vaccine Act. The legislation calls for investing $1 billion, $200 million per year between 2019 and 2023 into research. Funding would go to the National Institutes of Health.

“The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases within NIH spent an estimated $64 million for universal flu vaccine research in fiscal year 2017, according to the release. “The United States has already seen 63 pediatric deaths and high levels of illness and hospitalizations related to the flu this season. One-in-10 Americans who died the week ending on Jan. 20 died from the flu or pneumonia.”

In Maine, there have been 43 flu-related deaths as Feb. 10, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention. There have been a total of 4,147 cases of the flu for the season, 831 new cases last week.

York County has been hit the hardest hit county in the state, with the most cases reported last week, 210, the most reported for the season, 955, and the most hospitalizations for the season, 154.

“Flu season is as much a part of winter in Maine as skiing or snowmobiling. For some, that means you’re knocked off your feet for a couple of days, but for others – particularly children and older people — the flu can be deadly,” said Senator King. “Although we think that anything as common as flu is not dangerous, it certainly can be, and that’s why it’s so important that our scientists prioritize research into a universal vaccine. Our bill will help give our scientific community the support they need to research and ultimately develop a universal flu vaccine that can help our communities avoid deadly flu strains like the one we’ve seen this year.”

This year’s predominant strain of flu is particularly virulent, resulting in an increase in deaths and hospitalizations nationwide, according to the AP.  

“As an infectious diseases physician, I have seen and heard some of the devastating results of this winter’s severe influenza season, underscoring the urgent need for a universal vaccine that will provide protection against influenza regardless of each season’s primary strains,” said Dr. Paul Auwaerter, president, Infectious Diseases Society of America. “It is important that we invest the resources necessary to develop this life-saving tool.” If passed, he said the bill will be extremely helpful.”

The flu strain circulating this year’s mostly influenza A subtype H3N2. This kind of virus tends to cause more suffering and have been responsible for the worst recent flu seasons.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Health officials on Friday said about 1 of every 13 visits to the doctor last week was for fever, cough and other symptoms of the flu. That’s no reason for health officials to celebrate yet: That level is among the highest in a decade. But it’s no worse than last week, and flu activity had been increasing each week since November.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said the number of states reporting heavy flu patient traffic also held steady at 43.

The Maine CDC says it’s not too late to get a flu shot despite it being late in season.

It still provides some protection, it can lessen the illness’s severity, keep people out of the hospital, and save lives. There are as many as 56,000 deaths connected to the flu during a bad year.

“Any type of vaccine is better than none,” said Scott Hensley, a University of Pennsylvania microbiologist.

In addition to King, other senators co-sponsoroing the Flu Vaccine Act include: Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The eight senators also sent a  letter to the secretary of Health and Human Services asking for more information on how the department is preparing for and responding to the flu virus.

— Associate Editor Dina Mendros can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 324, or [email protected] The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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