It ain’t over ’til it’s over – Flu cases on the rise
The good news: The flu season has been pretty mild so far.
The bad news: In many parts of the U.S., including Cape Cod, flu cases are on the rise, later than most years.
“We’ve definitely had a major increase in the last few weeks,” said Mary Slater, RN, interim director of infection prevention at Cape Cod Healthcare. “It’s now kicking in on the Cape, similar to the rest of Massachusetts. March has been a lot busier than February.”
Records from Falmouth Hospital and Cape Cod Hospital showed that there were no positive tests for influenza during the first week of February, but 36 in the last three weeks of February and 98 in the first three weeks of March, according to Slater.
“Last year it started in December, was busy in January and February and then faded out, but we saw a few positive tests in April,” she said. “Many people were hospitalized for flu during that season.”
The majority of cases so far this year have been outpatients, with one person admitted for flu in Falmouth Hospital and two at Cape Cod Hospital in February and two at each hospital in March.
“This has been a really late influenza season,” Dr. Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the influenza division of the Centers for Disease Control, told WBUR. “If you go back and look at the last 33 seasons, only five of those have peaked during March, and none of them have peaked in April. We don’t yet know when influenza activity is going to peak this year. Data that we posted last week for the week ending March 12 showed influenza activity still increasing.”
The main reason that cases have been mostly mild so far this year is that this season’s vaccine is a better match for the flu than last season’s was, according to Slater.
“The CDC says the majority of cases have been of the H1N1 variety, which was widespread in 2009,” she said. “Many people have developed immunity to that over time, unlike last year’s H3N2 strain.”
As for why the flu is peaking so late, she said there are plenty of theories, including the mild winter in New England and most of the rest of the country, as well as the variation in flu strains from year to year.
No one knows for sure, but one thing that is certain is that it’s not too late to get a flu shot.
“It takes about two weeks for the antibodies to fully kick in,” said Slater. “Considering that we probably haven’t seen the worst of it, there’s still a lot of benefit to getting a flu shot, if you haven’t already.”
Flu shots are available through Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod clinics or at your physician’s office.
Other than a flu shot, the first rule for flu prevention is hand washing, said Slater.
“When someone coughs or sneezes, the flu virus lands on surfaces like desks or chair arms. If you touch these contaminated items and then touch your face, the virus can get to you,” she said.
If you get the flu, be sure you practice good cough etiquette, she added. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and throw away your own used tissues. Stay home when you’re sick, so you don’t pass the flu along to people at work.
Spring is also a time when many people get colds or suffer from seasonal allergies, but telling those ailments from the flu is not always easy, Slater said.
“Usually the symptoms of the flu are a lot worse. A cold usually stays in your upper respiratory system. Allergies are mostly in the eyes, nose and throat. The flu is a more severe illness, and you have more body symptoms like body aches or fatigue. It can also lead to complications, including pneumonia.