WASHINGTON – Maryland health officials said the number of confirmed influenza cases in the state fell to nearly zero last week, a time that they said is typically the peak of the flu season.
The unexpectedly low number of confirmed cases is down from a peak of 350 cases reported during one week in mid-December and mirrored a sharp drop in flu cases across the nation.
While 36 states reported a widespread level of flu activity in mid-December, no state had reported that level in the latest reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While some Maryland health officials note that it is too early to write this flu season off, others who are on the front lines of public health care said they do not expect the number of cases to pick up again until fall.
“We are not holding more clinics because we ran out of the flu shots. . . . And we are close to the end of the flu season anyway,” said Peter Beilenson, Baltimore City commissioner of health.
But Melinda Blackburn, an epidemiologist who coordinates the influenza surveillance program for Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the season does not officially end until May, which leaves plenty room for another spike in cases.
“It appears that we’ve peaked, and it’s on its decline. But you never know,” Blackburn said. “We could get another smaller peak later.”
Blackburn said that influenza is extremely difficult to track since many people who get the flu do not bother to go to the doctor, and doctors are not required to report the cases they do see. As a result, officials rely on cases voluntarily reported to the state-run Epidemiology and Disease Control Program.
“By no means is it (the number of confirmed cases) a total,” Blackburn said. “There is a lot more out there that we just don’t know about. But at least it gives us a good estimate of what the season is like.”
Based on those reports, the CDC dropped Maryland two notches on Jan. 17, from widespread flu activity — the highest level — to a local level of activity.
Blackburn said the vaccination rush early in the season may be partially responsible for the drop in cases.
But she said what really made this season unusual was the prevalence of the A/Fujian strain of influenza, which was harsher, made people sicker and produced more outbreaks. And the vaccine developed for this flu season did not fully protect against that strain. Still, Blackburn said the vaccine should have partially helped some people minimize the symptoms.
“There was some cross-protectiveness, but it wasn’t full protection,” she said.
Some health departments around the state said the number of Marylanders looking to get vaccinated appears to have dropped significantly.
“We are not getting as many people calling requesting the vaccines as we did in December,” said Elin Jones, Anne Arundel health department spokeswoman.
If there is not another spike in cases, this season will mark only the fifth time in 22 years that the flu season peaked in December, according to CDC records.
Blackburn said there is no way to know why the season peaked early this year or why it — may have — ended early.
“It’s just the nature of the virus. I don’t think anybody can answer that,” she said.
-30- CNS 02-11-04