Influenza is widespread in Massachusetts, and state and local health officials are urging more people -- especially those with existing serious illnesses -- to get a flu shot.
The latest flu report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the week that ended Dec. 21 says the flu is now prevalent across Massachusetts and nine other states -- Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming.
The state Department of Public Health has confirmed nearly 860 flu cases across the commonwealth in recent weeks, according to DPH epidemiologist, Dr. Larry Madoff.
"We know there are many more cases than those confirmed in our laboratory tests -- many hundreds if not thousands more," he noted.
Nevertheless, Madoff and other health professionals say the flu season has yet to peak, buying time for those who remain unprotected.
"We encourage people to get the vaccine now, if they haven’t already done so, as it takes two weeks to get the full effect of the shot," said Gina Armstrong, director of Pittfield’s Department of Public Health. Armstrong noted city residents can get the flu shot at her office by calling (413) 499-94411 to make an appointment.
In fact, local and state health professionals say plenty of vaccine remains available to combat the several strains of flu this winter, including H1N1 -- the swine flu -- which caused a pandemic nationwide in 2009. Health clinics, pharmaceutical chains such as Rite Aid and visiting nurse associations are among those still giving flu shots.
Besides the elderly and young children, those with weak immune systems and other high-risk patients should be vaccinated, along with young and middle-aged adults who are most susceptible to getting H1N1, according to state health officials.
The DPH recently was informed of the influenza-related death of an unvaccinated Massachusetts resident under the age of 40 who had a neuromuscular disorder known to be a risk factor for medical complications from influenza.
Since the flu season typically kicks into high gear in by February, local and state health officials say there is still time to get vaccinated before the flu reaches its peak, unlike last winter. Prior to Jan.1, 2013, Massachusetts had more than double the current reported cases of influenza, with more than 300 in Western Massachusetts.
As of Monday, several Berkshire health care providers report the latest flu season is off to a much slower start compared to a year ago.
"We’ve seen a handful of pediatric and handful of adult cases, but none requiring hospitalization," said Gerry McQuoid, director of infection prevention and control at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington.
"We’ve had some people struggling with sinus infections and colds, but nothing serious," added Holly Chaffee, president and CEO of the Lee-based Porchlight VNA/Home Care. "Many of our clients have already received the flu shot."
VNAs and other health organizations stage mass inoculations by holding flu shot clinics in October, November and early December. Chaffee says Porchlight still has vaccine available for those yet protected against this winter’s flu.
And the importance of flu shots isn’t lost on Massachusetts residents, according DPH officials.
"We had the highest vaccination rate in the country last year, nearly [75 percent] of the population got a flu shot," Madoff said.
Associated Press contributed to the story
To reach Dick Lindsay:
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Flu symptoms & prevention
Prevention: Everyone 6 months of age and older should be vaccinated, the only exceptions are people with a severe allergy to eggs or to a vaccine component. Washing your hands often, and coughing and sneezing into a tissue or into the inside your elbow, will also help keep you and others healthy.
Signs and symptoms:
People who have the flu often feel some or all of these:
n Fever or feeling feverish/chills, body temp. could peak at 104 degrees; not all flu cases involve a high fever.
n Sore throat
n Runny or stuffy nose
n Muscle or body aches
n Fatigue (very tired)
n Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
Sources: Massachusetts Department of Public health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention