Massachusetts is on track to see a bad flu season

The Bay State is heading into the peak part of the 2018-2019 flu season.

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

If you haven’t gotten your flu shot yet this year, now might be a good time.

The 2018-2019 flu season is shaping up to be a severe one, and health officials are cautioning that the activity for the virus, which can cause a cough, body aches, and a fever, is likely to increase over the next few weeks.

“All of our indications are that this is a bad flu season, and the likelihood is that it will continue to worsen for at least a couple more weeks,” Dr. Larry Madoff, director of the division of epidemiology and immunization at the Department of Public Health, told Boston.com.

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In fact, it’s looking similar to the 2017-2018 season, during which more people died (about 80,000) and were hospitalized due to the flu in the United States than any other influenza season in decades.  

Madoff cautioned that the reports of influenza-like illness being recorded over the last week in the state indicate that Massachusetts is “on track” for a season like last year.

“We don’t expect that we’ve hit the peak yet,” he said. “The peak usually occurs around this time or in the next couple of weeks. So I think our expectations are that it is going to continue to rise for at least a period of time and that we’re going to see more flu cases.”

According to the Department of Public Health, the northeast and southeast parts of the state are experiencing the highest levels of influenza-like illness.

 

One thing that appears to be different from last year, however, is that less people seem to be hospitalized with the flu, according to Madoff.

“It’s not a huge difference, but there is somewhat less hospitalization,” he said. “And that may be because the flu strain that we’re seeing this year is the H1N1 — the strain that emerged during the pandemic of 2009. And that strain tends to affect younger people more than older people.”

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Hospitalization rates, meanwhile, tend to be higher in older people since they’re more likely to have severe complications from the flu, Madoff said.

“The people who tended to have the greatest immunity to this flu strain are the elderly,” he said of H1N1. “And then as you go down in age, the level of immunity decreases. Now, it’s been increasing over the last few years as people are immunized and get exposed to this flu strain, but there’s still a proclivity for this H1N1 strain to more affect people in younger age groups. There’s no hard line, like under 30 or something like that, it just is an increase with decreasing age.”

Last year, the dominant strain of the flu in circulation was H3N2, which in general tends to cause more serious disease and a more severe season. On top that, the vaccine for the virus wasn’t as closely matched to the strain as hoped.

Exactly how effective this year’s vaccine is probably won’t really be known for a couple more weeks, according to Madoff.

“It’s always tough to predict what the vaccine efficacy or effectiveness is going to be, and it varies every year, from year to year,” he said. “So far the best indication that we have is that the circulating strains appear to match the vaccine strains antigenically. And so that’s a good thing — that tends to bode well for vaccine effectiveness. But we don’t really yet know, and we won’t have data on that for a few more weeks most likely.”

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As it is, Massachusetts is one of the states experiencing high levels of influenza activity, according to the CDC.

The federal agency is forecasting that activity for the virus nationwide is likely to increase over the next few weeks and that the “highest flu activity will occur by the end of February.”

“We’re right up there,” Madoff said of the national outlook. “It tends to be concentrated at the moment sort of in a belt running from the South to the Northeast, and so we’re in that belt and we’re definitely seeing a bad flu season here in Massachusetts. It’s not quite as bad as they’re seeing in other states, but it’s right up there.”

Considering the flu is likely to be around for weeks if not months to come, there’s still time for you to get vaccinated against influenza if you haven’t already, he said.

“It takes a couple of weeks to reach its peak effectiveness, so getting it now is a good idea,” Madoff said. “We really always want to urge people to use hand-washing and/or alcohol rubs to keep from introducing flu into their own mouths, noses, eyes, from touching surfaces that are contaminated. And to prevent spreading flu to other people, cover your cough, your sneeze, and stay home if you’re sick. It’s important for your own health and also stops you from giving flu to those you work with or go to school with or interact with socially.”

Anyone who is at risk for severe disease from the flu, such as young children, those with heart disease, asthma, or conditions that compromise the immune system, should contact their medical provider if they think they’re getting the virus.