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Flu hitting earlier, harder than previous years, experts say

Ethan Medina, 11, receives a flu shot administered by nurse, Hazel-Ann Belizaire at CBedd Adler, Metro

An influenza epidemic is sweeping the nation, with more cases and hospitalizations this year, and a less effective vaccine for the strain.

The virus is characterized as “widespread” in New York State, with flu activity reported in all five boroughs and 54 counties, according to the New York State Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say 43 states have high or widespread outbreaks.

Flu-like symptoms accounted for nearly 6 percent of all doctor visits nationally in the last week of 2014, and higher hospitalization rates than this time last year, with 12.6 people per 100,000 being treated for the flu.

This year’s predominant strain, H3N2, was prevalent during the 2012-2013 flu season, when 13.3 per 100,000 people were hospitalized for the flu, according to the CDC. Health professionals say the vaccine is only about 60 percent effective, but decreases the severity of flu-symptoms, which include fever, cough and runny nose, aches and fatigue.

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Across the nation, there have been 21 pediatric deaths this flu season-- one in New York City and six of which were reported in the last week of 2014.

State health department numbers from Dec. 27 show 3,922 confirmed cases were reported, a 90 percent jump from the previous week, and 972 patients admitted to the hospital. There have been 7,826 confirmed flu cases in the state so far this year.

“It is relatively early in the influenza season … activity is increasing and we expect it to go higher than it is now,” said Dr. Jane Zucker, Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau of Immunization from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “If you haven’t been protected with a vaccination, now is the time to do it.”

Zucker said individual flu cases aren’t reported to the health department, but preliminary surveillance shows this season is expected to be more severe, in part because H3N2 is associated with “more severity.” There are more than one flu strain and other viruses circulating in the city, but the health department recommends getting vaccinated as soon as possible and not waiting for a particular formulation.

“It doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to, but helps people from getting serious complications,” Zucker said.

People over 65, children under 5, and those with preexisting conditions are at a higher risk and should be vaccinated, Zucker said. Shots are recommended for pregnant women, who pass the antibodies to their baby. Children under 5 who attend city pre-K and daycares must be vaccinated.

Dr. Pedro Gonzalez, Associate Medical Director for Infectious Diseases with Community Healthcare Network in the Bronx and Manhattan, said he’s been seeing about five to six walk-in patients a day complaining of flu-like symptoms.

“It’s definitely very prevalent,” Gonzalez said, adding he thinks this year’s outbreak is “consistent” with national predictions.

The difference this year is the vaccination is only about 60 percent effective, but Gonzalez said getting the shot is better than nothing.

Gonzalez said those who experience flu symptoms should visit a doctor sooner rather than later to be swabbed and tested for the virus, and be prescribed with a drug such as Tamiflu.

“Hand wash, hand wash, hand wash,” Gonzalez said. “Cover your mouth when you cough. Those type of measures are lifesavers.”

Location of flu shots, including free and low-cost options, are available by calling 311, texting “flu” to 877877 or at nyc.gov/flu.

 
 
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