Editorial: It’s in our best interest to take flu season seriously

  • Flu season continues to get worse, as this has become the most intense the country has seen since a pandemic strain hit nine years ago according to U.S. health officials. AP FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

It benefits all of us to heed the precautions of health experts and to try to curb the spread of the flu during a particularly severe season, here and nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the flu was widespread during January in every state except Hawaii, the rates of hospitalizations and deaths are increasing, and the percentage of patients visiting doctors for treatment of flu symptoms rose to the highest level since the swine flu pandemic of 2009.

By the end of the season, which could last several more weeks, some 34 million Americans are expected to be sickened by the flu, according to the CDC. That is about the same as during the 2014-15 flu season, when the CDC estimates 710,000 Americans were hospitalized and about 56,000 died.

There were a total of 506 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu in western Massachusetts during the entire 2016-17 season, and that number has more than tripled to 1,522 so far during the 2017-18 season, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Hospitals, including Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, are restricting visitors in an attempt to limit the spread of the flu.

The visitor restrictions call for: No visitors under 12 years old are permitted; no more than two visitors at a time are recommended per patient; visitors should be “essential for the well-being” of patients; and visitors who have been exposed to the flu at home, or who have flu symptoms, are asked to refrain from visiting patients.

The restrictions will be in place indefinitely.

The hospital also advised patients to attend appointments alone or accompanied just by an immediate caregiver, and they should not bring children.

Baystate Health has announced similar restrictions at its other hospitals in the Pioneer Valley.

The CDC reported that the number of deaths resulting from influenza and pneumonia, as listed on death certificates, was elevated nationally for most of January. A total of 37 children across the country had died of the flu as of Jan. 26, according to the CDC.

Young children and elderly people are most at risk from the flu and its complications. The highest hospitalization rate for flu patients this season, as in most years, is for people ages 65 and older. Unusually, however, people ages 50 to 64 have the second highest hospitalization rate, rather than children.

“In other words, baby boomers have higher (hospitalization) rates than (their) grandchildren right now,” said Dr. Daniel Jernigan, director of CDC’s influenza division.

Health experts recommend common-sense precautions to help prevent the flu, which is spread through droplets of saliva and mucus. Those include staying home from work or school if you are sick, frequent hand-cleaning, and covering coughs and sneezes.

Also, it’s not too late to get a flu vaccine.

“It is important that we all take steps to prevent flu from spreading, including getting a flu shot because it is among the best protections we have,” said Massachusetts Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel. This year’s flu shot is aimed at the strains that are sickening Americans, mostly the H3N2 flu virus.

Doctors recommend treatment with antiviral drugs for people who are very sick with flu symptoms or at high risk of developing serious complications. Tylenol or ibuprofen, rest and plenty of fluids are recommended for other flu patients.

Following these basic steps should help prevent an already bad flu season from becoming much worse.