An uncharacteristically early outbreak of the flu is evident across Berkshire County along with other regions of Massachusetts.
In the last week, there were 78 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in Western Massachusetts -- which nearly doubled the total amount of cases in the region to 160 in 2012, according to the state Department of Public Health.
The numbers of flu cases, or individuals with flu-like symptoms, are likely considerably higher since most people ignore the physical discomforts and don’t visit the doctor’s office.
The telltale symptoms of fever, sore throat and body aches, were nearly nonexistent at this time last year, with only 17 cases reported. Other flu symptoms include chills, fatigue and nausea.
Last year was a mild flu season, said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, director for the infectious disease bureau at the state health department.
Flu cases in Massachusetts don’t normally peak until February, DeMaria said. But this year the numbers could peak within a few weeks, he said.
The holiday season has prevented the spread of the flu to co-workers. But DeMaria said he won’t know until figures are reported next week whether the spread of the flu has slowed among family members or increased dramatically.
"It will either blunt or make it worse," DeMaria said.
The outbreak of the flu in Massachusetts follows a statewide trend.
There were 126 cases reported at this time last year.
Central Massachusetts has been hit the hardest with 784 cases -- a dramatic increase from the three cases that were reported in 2011.
Nationally, there has been an early start to the flu season in 2012-2013, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Fourteen deaths have been reported in North Carolina.
Ninety percent of those fatalities are associated with people age 65 or older, DeMaria said. The flu is particularly disconcerting for public health officials because it can progress to pneumonia, cause heart attacks, or progress to other more serious conditions.
People are encouraged to get flu vaccinations, but also take extra precautionary measures, such as washing their hands.
Due to the holidays, Berkshire Medical Center spokesman Michael Leary said that he could not find local statistics on reported flu cases.
BMC has been reaching out to the community by holding flu vaccinations since August, Leary said. The Berkshire Visiting Nurse Association offices at 725 North St. also offers flu shots.
"The problem isn’t the (availability) of flu vaccination, but whether people get it or not," Leary said.
To reach John Sakata: