What to know about the 2018-2019 flu season in Massachusetts

“Get your flu shot.”

A nurse prepares an injection of the influenza vaccine at Massachusetts General Hospital in a January 10, 2013 file photo.
A nurse prepares an injection of the influenza vaccine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Jan. 10, 2013. –Reuters, File

It’s that time of year again.

Flu season, like the wintry temperatures, is upon us.

The latest weekly flu report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health says the rates of “flu-like illness” have increased just slightly in the state so far in October, but officials are once again issuing the call for residents to get a flu shot to prepare.

Last year, Massachusetts, like the rest of the country, saw a severe flu season.

David Hooper, chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Boston.com that the hospital saw a record-breaking number of flu cases last year.

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“We’ve been keeping hospital-related data for 15 or so years and last year was the busiest in terms of number of flu cases that we’ve seen on record,” he said.

We spoke with Hooper to learn more about what Bay State residents should expect for the 2018-2019 flu season.

When does the season really start?

While the state may be receiving some reports of “flu-like illness,” Hooper said the season shouldn’t get fully underway until early January.

“An early season is often December,” he said. “The usual season really picks up around the first of the year, after the holidays.”

Last year, the season got off to an early start in Massachusetts.

Will this year be another severe season?

Several factors are thought to have contributed to the severity of last year’s season, according to Hooper. The dominant strain of the virus that circulated, H3N2, tends to cause more serious disease and a severe season, and the vaccine wasn’t as closely matched with the illness as had been hoped.

“That’s a perennial problem of the best guess you can make about what strains are going to dominate based on Southern Hemisphere data and most of the vaccine production has to start a good bit ahead of the flu season,” Hooper said.

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FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement that the agency, which is involved in developing the flu vaccine, learned from last year’s issue with the vaccine.

“We have some confidence, based on the pattern of influenza circulating now in the Southern hemisphere, that the flu strains chosen for this year’s U.S. seasonal flu vaccine should offer Americans good protection,” he said.  

The MGH physician said there are no indications so far about how severe the flu season will be this year in the United States.

“It’s predictably unpredictable, so it’s hard to say,” Hooper said. “Sometimes after a very heavy flu season you’ll have a lighter flu season. But again, that’s not really reliable enough that you can go to the bank with it.”

What should you do to prepare?

Even if a vaccine isn’t having a good year against the flu, it is still the best protection against getting the illness severely and preventing hospitalizations, particularly for people who have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk, Hooper said.  

“Get your flu shot, first and foremost and maybe even second and third,” he said. “Then all of the other sort of things you can do that your mother told you to do about covering your cough and washing your hands and that sort of thing are important for reducing the likelihood of the spread of the flu between and among people are the main things.”

If you’re experiencing symptoms of the flu, which include fever, cough, muscle aches, and a sore throat, Hooper said you should contact your doctor, especially if you have an underlying medical condition that puts you at a higher risk for complications from the illness.

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“There are some therapies that can be used in those circumstances, so just being in communication with your physician, particularly for people with underlying diseases that put them at risk for worse disease, is important,” he said.