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Flu season peaks early this year

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Lisa White, Regional Public Health Nurse with the Franklin County Council of Governments, gives a flu shot to Conway resident Jeff McFarland in the Conway Town Hall on Friday.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Lisa White, Regional Public Health Nurse with the Franklin County Council of Governments, gives a flu shot to Conway resident Jeff McFarland in the Conway Town Hall on Friday.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Lisa White, Regional Public Health Nurse with the Franklin County Council of Governments, gives a flu shot to Conway resident Jeff McFarland in the Conway Town Hall on Friday.

The influenza virus struck Massachusetts much earlier than usual this winter, catching some people off guard who had planned to get their flu shot sometime in the next month, said state and local health officials.

The flu typically reaches its highest infection rate at the end of February, but officials said that it may now be the peak of this current flu season.

In the western part of the state as of Friday, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 313 confirmed cases, compared to 18 at the same time last year.

Since many people don’t get officially tested for the flu, the data represents only a small sample of the affected population, said state epidemiologist Alfred DeMaria.

But DeMaria said that the numbers are useful in comparing year to year, indicating to state officials that flu has indeed come early this year. Even with last year’s overall benign flu season, this year’s numbers are higher than years before that, he said.

And this peak season is the earliest he’s seen since 2003, but he offered no guess as to why.

“It’s sort of like a fire starting. It might smolder, but you can’t predict when it’s going to flare up,” said DeMaria. “It just flared up early this year.”

Mary Ellen Ahearn, infection control coordinator at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, said she has noticed a significant wave of flu cases during the past two weeks.

She suspects that many people have not yet gotten flu vaccines this season, thinking they could wait until December or January like usual.

“In years past that has been OK, but you don’t know when the flu is going to hit,” said Ahearn.

The flu can lead to other medical problems including pneumonia, ear and sinus infections and dehydration, said Ahearn. Patients who are diabetic, have asthma or congestive heart failure may be more susceptible to the flu or have trouble fighting off infections, she said.

It is spread from one person to another by water droplets made when infected people sneeze, cough or talk. Symptoms include a fever, severe aches and pains, a dry cough and sore throat.

Health officials stressed the need for healthy people to wash hands and avoid touching their face, and for sick people to stay at home, away from others, while a fever and body chills persist.

The flu typically goes away after three to five days. Medication is available to treat the flu at home, but further medical attention may be required if a person has difficulty breathing or shows signs of other illnesses, health officials said.

And they stressed that it isn’t too late to get the flu shots this year, although they advised that it usually takes a couple of weeks before the vaccine is truly effective.

There is no guarantee that a person who receives a vaccine will stay flu-free. The success rate for a young heathy person may be around 90 percent, said DeMaria. It may be as low as 40 percent for someone who is old and has chronic medical conditions.

“But if you don’t use it, it’s 100 percent ineffective,” he said.

Lisa White, a regional public health nurse, has held flu clinics for the past few months. She serves people from seven Franklin County towns in the Cooperative Public Health Service: Buckland, Charlemont, Conway, Deerfield, Gill, Hawley and Monroe.

She administers flu shots every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Deerfield town offices. For more information, call her at: 413-665-1400 ext. 114.

There are no out-of-pockets costs for the vaccines, with the price covered by both the state and towns, said White.

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