By ANA MULERO and SHARADHA KALYANAM
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS –The intensity of this flu season is hard to predict because it varies from year to year, so there’s no telling whether it will be mild or severe, according to health experts.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is among the various state and federal agencies stressing the importance of getting vaccinated before flu activity peaks across the United States during winter.
Closer to home, doctors haven’t seen flu cases yet, but it is the perfect time for Marylanders to get vaccinated, they advise.
The flu season typically starts by late October or early November in Maryland, according to Mary Elizabeth Griffith, senior infection control epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore.
“This is October and we usually see a couple cases but it should be starting soon,” she said.
Get vaccinated soon, because it takes two weeks for the vaccine to get working, Griffith said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a three-step approach to fighting the flu: vaccination; everyday preventive actions, such as avoiding close contact with sick people; and frequent hand-washing using soap and water. Antiviral drugs (drugs used for viral infections) are also recommended as a second line of defense for treatment of people who are very sick with the flu or are at high risk for serious flu complications.
Among the groups of people who are at higher risk for developing flu-related complications are children aged younger than 5, especially if they are younger than 2, adults who are 65 and older, pregnant women and people with asthma and chronic lung diseases, according to Kurt Seetoo, an epidemiologist at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore.
Griffith said that people with diabetes and heart disease should also take special care to stay safe from infections.
“Our main concern is getting the message out to people that flu season is coming and that it should be a priority to get vaccinated,” said Seetoo.
According to the CDC, 47 percent of the U.S. population aged 6 months and older received a flu shot last season.
In the United States, the rate of flu-related hospitalizations among people 65 and older last season was the highest in recent history. Children were also highly affected, with 145 pediatric deaths associated with the flu, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in Bethesda.
This season’s vaccine has been updated to better protect Americans against two influenza virus strains that experts expect to be circulating during the upcoming season: H3N2 and Yamagata lineage, according to the foundation.
“Occasionally, flu viruses will change substantially after they are included in the vaccine,” said Dr. William Schaffner, the foundation’s medical director and an infectious diseases specialist at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
“This can result in lower-than-usual vaccine effectiveness, which is what happened last season,” Schaffner said.
However, doctors hope to have a better grip on the situation this year.
“But this season’s vaccine has been updated and vaccination is always our first and best defense in fighting flu and protecting public health,” Schaffner said.
Cover your cough, wash your hands, keep your environment clean, Griffith said. If a person gets infected, he or she could experience any one or all of the flu’s symptoms, including fever, muscle and body ache, fatigue, headache, cough and a sore throat.
“Antibiotics do not help treat flu,” Griffith said. “If you go to the doctor and they prescribe the antiviral, start taking them quickly and take them completely. That can help shorten your course of the flu which means that less time for spreading it to others.”
In a related development, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, along with four other institutions, received an award of $11 million from the CDC to prevent the spread of dangerous germs. The funding is meant to support research on preventing the flu virus, the Ebola virus and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.