ANNAPOLIS – Maryland could be facing one of the worst flu seasons this winter because of a particularly strong virus sickening patients in the West and a less-than-perfect vaccine match – but then again, it may not.
Predicting the spread of a particular strain of virus is an inexact science, experts say. And even though Maryland’s vaccine is not an exact match for the virulent virus making its way through the American West, it probably will mitigate the flu’s effects if it does land here.
“It’s not too late to get your shot,” said a spokesman with the state health department. “For some people, it will be effective.”
Maryland’s vaccine protects against three strains of the flu, but does not offer complete protection against the Fujian virus, which has been identified in almost 99 percent of flu cases this year and is the top culprit in the deaths of several children in Colorado and Arizona.
Maryland has had 91 confirmed flu cases as of Friday, 90 of which are Type A flu viruses. It’s not known if the state’s cases are caused by the Fujian virus because identification of the specific strain is done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the process takes a few weeks, said a spokesman with the state health department.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created the vaccine for this year’s flu season in February, and it did not include the Fujian strain, the dominant, Type-A strain circulating in the United States.
No one can predict when or whether the Fujian strain will become widespread in Maryland or what its effect will be. In past years, the Fujian strain has led to more severe flu seasons, although the CDC said it is too early to predict this year’s severity.
“The flu and the spread of the flu throughout any region is unpredictable,” said a CDC spokesman.
Composition of the Maryland vaccine does include a “cousin” of the Fujian strain which may offer some protection. Since the vaccine is not a 100 percent match with the Fujian virus, however, the state health department said this could end up being a bad year.
“The combination of a virulent strain of virus and not having 100 percent protection from the vaccine could lead to a more severe season,” said a spokesman from the state health department.
In a typical year, 20 percent of the U.S. population contracts the flu, resulting in about 36,000 deaths and 116,000 hospitalizations, according to the CDC.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Maryland Hospital Association are encouraging people who have flu symptoms to contact their physician first rather than going to the emergency room.
Hospital emergency rooms have had a 5 percent increase in visits since last year and the number of visits typically increases in winter, according to the Maryland Hospital Association.
“If you feel you might be coming down with the flu, contact your physician or health care provider first,” said Nelson J. Sabatini, state health department secretary in a news release. “Making that call can help alleviate some of the congestion and overcrowding that traditionally occurs in hospital emergency departments.”