Doctors drive home a point: Get a flu shot

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With the flu season having started early this year, and the end still weeks away, doctors are urging those who haven't done so to get a flu vaccine.

Michael Perreault, a registered nurse and director of infection control at Berkshire Medical Center, noted that flu season typically doesn't get much of a foothold until December, but this year it took hold in October. It is typically over by April or May.

And the spread of the flu has been pretty fast.

"It's fairly widespread across the state because of the earlier start," Perreault said. "But it's not necessarily severe. Some areas of the country have been hit pretty hard, but not here. Not yet."

As of last week, BMC reported 152 positive flu tests; over the course of the season, 55 have been admitted as inpatients.

Nationally, the picture is more serious.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that flu hospitalization rates across the country were the highest ever seen at this point in the season since tracking began in 2005.

The rates already have surpassed those of the 2014-15 season, when 710,000 Americans were hospitalized and 56,000 died. So far this year, 53 children have died; by the time the flu season ended in 2015, 148 children had died.

"This flu season started quite early," said Dr. Alfred DeMaria, medical director of the State Epidemiologist Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. "And you always have to take the flu seriously. So, it's going to be a bad flu season, but not any worse than we've seen before."

DeMaria said that the percentage of visits to the hospital with flulike symptoms in Massachusetts averages about 0.8 percent. But that rate is now 3.6 percent, a dramatic uptick.

"The western counties have really come up fast and are showing some high activity," he added.

The reason for the rapid spread, Perreault said, is that when someone is infected, they have the flu for 48 hours before the symptoms start to show, but they are contagious throughout those 48 hours. And the vast majority of the time, the flu is spread through exhalation, when the virus is inhaled from the air exhaled by a contagious person.

Sometimes, he said, the contagion can come in contact with hands, and if that hand touches the eye nose or mouth, that could also result in the flu. Symptoms can include fever, cough, body aches and more.

Once one catches the flu, he or she can expect to be under the weather for at least three days; usually, more like five days.

"It can take a lot out of you," he said. "At that point, the best thing is to stay in bed, drink plenty of water and eat when your body tells you to. If you're hungry, then eat."

Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said that while every flu season is different, it typically is at its peak January through March.

"This year we are seeing a very rapid increase in influenzalike illness across Massachusetts, along with an increase in confirmed flu cases," she said. "It is important that we all take steps to prevent flu from spreading, including getting a flu shot, because it is among the best protection we have."

The effectiveness of the vaccine, varies depending on how closely it matches the strain of flu virus, according to BMC spokesman Michael Leary.

But while it's possible to get the flu and transmit it to others if you are vaccinated, experience shows that the illness might be less severe. And even if the vaccine is a good match to the flu strain, inoculated people can still get a mild form of the virus.

The vaccine is available at the Berkshire Health Systems Urgent Care Center, primary care offices and many pharmacies.

It takes, on average, two weeks after being vaccinated for the antibodies to build up in the system to provide the fullest protection.

One thing is certain, Leary said.

"You cannot get the flu from the vaccine," he said. "That is the most common myth."

Those who do get infected can find some symptom relief from antiviral medications such as Tamiflu.

Chris Flynn, co-owner of Flynn's Pharmacy in Pittsfield, said last week that the supply was stable, though liquid children's Tamiflu was sold out at the moment, and people have been using the smallest-dosage Tamiflu capsule for their kids.

But his supply of the vaccine is somewhat limited.

"We had an uptick in customers looking for the flu vaccine in the last three days," he said.

Kristen Nordlund, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while flu activity is beginning to slow in some regions of the country, it remains high for most of the U.S., with some areas still rising.

"Flu activity has been elevated for nine consecutive weeks so far this season," she said last week. "To put that into perspective, the average duration of a flu season in the past five seasons has been around 16 weeks, with the longest being 20 weeks."

She noted that this year is starting to resemble the 2014-15 flu season.

"We've not yet peaked in terms of activity."

Scott Stafford can be reached at sstafford@berkshireeagle.com or 413-629-4517.


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