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Severe flu season responsible for 18 Massachusetts deaths

  • <br/><br/>Andrew Korza works with  Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing  for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon.



    Andrew Korza works with Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/><br/>Andrew Korza works with left Lizzie Brodeur,8, and Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing  for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon.



    Andrew Korza works with left Lizzie Brodeur,8, and Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/><br/>Andrew Korza works with left Lizzie Brodeur,8, and Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing  for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon.



    Andrew Korza works with left Lizzie Brodeur,8, and Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Linda Riley,R.N.,CIC, who is the infection prevention manager at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, uses a hand sanitizer Wednesday in a hallway near the hospital's main entrance. Beside her is a cut-out of Craig Melin, the hospital's CEO and president, asking visitors to clean their hands before and after their visit.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Linda Riley,R.N.,CIC, who is the infection prevention manager at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, uses a hand sanitizer Wednesday in a hallway near the hospital's main entrance. Beside her is a cut-out of Craig Melin, the hospital's CEO and president, asking visitors to clean their hands before and after their visit.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A sign, top left, in the emergency waiting area directs those with flu symptoms to wait in a separate area Wednesday at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.There is also a hand sanitizer and a sign describing how to "cover" your cough to help prevent the spread of disease. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A sign, top left, in the emergency waiting area directs those with flu symptoms to wait in a separate area Wednesday at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.There is also a hand sanitizer and a sign describing how to "cover" your cough to help prevent the spread of disease.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • <br/><br/>Andrew Korza works with  Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing  for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon.
  • <br/><br/>Andrew Korza works with left Lizzie Brodeur,8, and Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing  for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon.
  • <br/><br/>Andrew Korza works with left Lizzie Brodeur,8, and Josie Kirley,9, while substituteing  for Joanie Payne's 3rd grade class at the Jackson Street school Wednesday afternoon.
  • Linda Riley,R.N.,CIC, who is the infection prevention manager at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, uses a hand sanitizer Wednesday in a hallway near the hospital's main entrance. Beside her is a cut-out of Craig Melin, the hospital's CEO and president, asking visitors to clean their hands before and after their visit.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A sign, top left, in the emergency waiting area directs those with flu symptoms to wait in a separate area Wednesday at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.There is also a hand sanitizer and a sign describing how to "cover" your cough to help prevent the spread of disease. <br/>JERREY ROBERTS

Eighteen people have died in Massachusetts from the flu, according to the state Department of Public Health, and in Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency for the city, which has reported some 700 cases of the flu, about 10 times the number of cases from the same period last year.

Locally, this year’s flu outbreak is exceptionally severe, according to Linda Riley, manager of Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Infection Prevention Department. By Jan. 9, she said, 15 people had been hospitalized at Cooley Dickinson for flu-related conditions, compared to one hospitalization for the entire 2011-12 flu season.

“This is the worst in several years,” said Dr. Sarah Haessler, an infectious disease specialist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. She said the flu outbreak has strained the hospital’s resources and helped to fill its beds to capacity.

The flu season generally runs from about October until February or March when it typically peaks before subsiding, Riley said. This season, though, reports of flu cases began earlier and came in greater numbers than recent flu seasons, she said.

She noted that there is typically a spike in flu cases this time of year as students and faculty return to colleges, come in close contact with each other and spend more time indoors — at the same time that they may have spent the holidays around people who transmitted the virus to them before carrying it back to the Valley.

Riley said she is not sure precisely why this year is more severe than others, but she noted that the perception that there are more people who have contracted the flu this year is absolutely accurate.

Public schools affected

Karen Jarvis-Vance, director of health and safety for Northampton schools, said there has been an uptick in the number of student and staff absences both before and after the holiday break, though she said the numbers aren’t alarming.

Still, Jarvis-Vance said most of the absences have tended to be for longer than average periods of time, indicating they are the result of the onset of this year’s flu, which can be tenacious and comes with a host of symptoms, making it difficult to work or attend classes.

High fever, persistent cough, chills and body and muscle aches have all been reported symptoms, and usually come on very rapidly.

The schools ran flu vaccination clinics in the fall and urged people to get the vaccination if they haven’t already done so.

State and federal officials have identified a Type A influenza known as H3N2 as the predominant strain reported so far this season. The strain, historically associated with more serious illnesses, is among those covered by the current vaccine.

“No vaccine is 100 percent effective,” cautioned Kevin Cranston, head of the state bureau of infectious diseases. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control rates the effectiveness of last season’s vaccine at 52 percent.

In the meantime, Jarvis-Vance said, the best way to avoid getting and prevent spreading the flu is to be diligent about hand washing and sanitizing and staying home from work or school when ill until better.

Northampton Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary said the peak of the flu season is likely still ahead. She encouraged vaccinations for those who still haven’t received one.

O’Leary said the city is offering a free vaccination clinic Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. in the Florence Community Center at 140 Pine St.

Another clinic will be offered Saturday by the VNA and Hospice of Cooley Dickinson, from 9 a.m. to noon, at the Greenfield Savings Bank branch, at 325A King St., Northampton.

The fee is $30 per shot, but many insurances pay for flu vaccines, so community members should bring their insurance cards. No appointment is necessary.

Nationally, according to the CDC, flu activity went from being sporadic or only a few local cases being reported across the country the week of Nov. 3, to being “widespread” in all but eight states by the week of Dec. 29, the most recent week for which data are available.

The most recent year that reported flu activity similar to this year’s numbers was the 2009-10 season, but that season peaked in mid-October and was still less severe at its height than this year, according to the CDC.

Vaccine encouraged

Riley said the flu is the No. 1 killer disease for which there is a preventive vaccine.

Elinor Selkirk, a wellness nurse for the VNA and Hospice of Cooley Dickinson, said some people who can tolerate the vaccine are still reluctant to get it, because of a dislike of injections or, in some cases, misinformation.

Riley said many people are under the mistaken impression that, because a flu vaccine contains a small amount of flu virus, the vaccine itself can make them ill.

“You cannot get the flu from a flu vaccine,” Riley said.

She said the vaccine contains a dead form of the virus that cannot infect a human host. There is, however, a two-week period following the administration of the vaccine before it becomes fully effective.

For that reason, Riley said, it’s best to get a flu vaccine as soon as possible, although there is still plenty of time to get one and have it be effective for the remainder of the season.

When people fall ill before the vaccine takes effect, they will sometimes mistakenly assign blame to the vaccine, not realizing the vaccine was not the cause.

For those with a phobia of needles, Riley said there are two options. Some pharmacies and medical providers offer a vaccine administered with a much smaller needle that only penetrates the upper layers of the skin, or a nasal spray that administers the vaccine in a mist into the nose. All three methods are equally effective, she said.

Selkirk said the vaccines are appropriate for those without a severe allergy to eggs, because the virus is grown on chicken embryos during the vaccine creation process.

Dr. Shersten Killip, a practitioner of family medicine at Valley Medicine in Florence, said her office has seen the same increase in flu cases much earlier than is typical in most years, but said there’s no clear answer as to why.

The flu virus is one that is in a constant state of mutation and changes from year to year, she said, making some strains more tenacious and potent than others, without a clear pattern to predict with any degree of accuracy what upcoming flu seasons may be like.

“We don’t have a ‘why,’” she said. “It’s always pretty nasty.”

Baystate and the hospitals it operates in Greenfield and Ware have altered their visitor policies in wake of the increase in flu cases, restricting the ages and numbers of visitors.

Measures like that haven’t been implemented at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, according to Riley.

Riley said patients who are presenting flu-like symptoms are being kept separate from other patients, and masked to help prevent the spread of germs.

Staff, patients, and visitors are also being provided face masks, tissues, and hand sanitizer, all in an effort to curb the transmission of the disease, she said.

“The flu is a seriousness illness,” Riley said. “We need to take measures to prevent it.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com

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