WASHINGTON – The flu outbreak in Maryland has been lower than in past years, despite concerns that delays in this season’s flu vaccine would lead to an increase in cases, state health officials said.
There had been about 161 laboratory-verified cases of the flu reported to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as of Thursday, compared to 263 cases at this time last year, said state epidemiologist Melinda Blackburn.
Health officials said that the delay of the vaccine that caused fears earlier this winter may actually have worked to their advantage, since the flu season itself got off to a late start this season. Since people got vaccinations later in the season, the vaccine should be more effective in fighting off the flu today.
“We’re actually lucky because of the late vaccinations,” Blackburn said.
The first reported cases of the flu weren’t until mid-December, and the state is reaching the peak right now. Typically, flu season starts in late October or early November.
The state’s flu numbers are not comprehensive. Because the flu is not a reportable disease in Maryland, the health department gets only a representative sampling through several large hospital systems, a network of private physicians and the monitoring of nursing homes, said state epidemiologist David Blythe.
Although there hasn’t been a serious outbreak, there have been some spurts of flu activity in Maryland.
In early January, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems put Baltimore hospitals on Yellow Alert Phase II in anticipation of increased flu cases. The alert has since been lifted.
Last week, The Washington Times reported record numbers of patients with flu symptoms at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring. On Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control posted mid-January data that showed the flu as “widespread” in Maryland, with cases in more than 50 percent of the state’s geographic regions.
Blackburn said Maryland’s problem has since been downgraded to regional.
Some hospitals in the state have reported patients with flu and respiratory symptoms, but they do not report being overwhelmed, said Linda Janzik, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Hospital Association.
Representatives of hospitals in Baltimore City and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have not reported large numbers of flu sufferers.
Although many treat the flu as nothing more than a serious cold, it is highly contagious and can have serious complications such as pneumonia.
The flu kills an average of 20,000 Americans, with an additional 110,000 requiring hospitalization, making the flu, along with pneumonia, the sixth most common cause of death in the country. Over 90 percent of these deaths occur in people 65 or older.
Because of the potential seriousness of the flu, health officials urge the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or respiratory problems, to get the flu vaccine, which is 70 to 90 percent effective in healthy adults.
Production problems and the withdrawal of one of the four producers of flu vaccine caused a delay in the distribution of doses earlier this winter. There is plenty of the vaccine now, however, and it is a good match for the most prevalent flu strains in Maryland, influenza A and influenza B, Blackburn said.
“It’s not too late to get the vaccine,” Blythe said. Although it takes 10 to 14 days for the vaccine to take effect, flu season sometimes stretches into May and the majority of cases are in February.