Influenza numbers flying

Health officials urge vaccination as flu season enters full swing

NASHUA – The flu season is in full swing, and it’s leaving its mark on residents and local businesses in Greater Nashua.

Local health officials said those who haven’t yet received a flu shot should be wary of those carrying the virus, and noted that it’s not too late to get the vaccine.

Doctors from Nashua area hospitals said they have seen an increased number of residents coming in reporting flu-like symptoms.

In December, St. Joseph Hospital officials said they saw a dramatic increase in patients reporting symptoms and testing positive for the virus. From September to November, the hospital saw five cases of the flu. That number jumped to 28 last month alone.

“It’s starting to pick up,” Dr. Brian Sweeney, chief of emergency service at St. Joseph Hospital said. “Last month, we had 28 positive tests for the flu, 12 percent based on tests of those with flu-like symptoms.”

Sweeney attributes the uptick in flu cases, in part, to the holiday season, noting people getting together creates more contact, which is the easiest way the virus spreads.

At Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Nashua, doctors are seeing more cases of influenza at this time of year as opposed to last flu season.

Dr. Ahmed Hussain, clinical lead of family medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said with it still being early in the flu season, it’s hard to tell if this season will prove to be worse than the last one, but there have been more cases up to this point comparatively.

“It’s hard to quantify, it’s still early in the flu season. This year, we’ve seen flu cases much, much earlier than last year,” Hussain said. “We’ve seen large numbers with flu and cold symptoms. We’ve seen people at different stages of the flu.”

According to both doctors, the Influenza A strain has vastly outnumbered cases of Influenza B. Sweeney said that the B strain has only been reported in three out of the 28 cases in December at St. Joseph, and Hussain said Dartmouth-Hitchcock hasn’t seen many cases of Influenza B, confirming the former strain to be much more common this season.

Both medical professionals said anyone who hasn’t yet received a flu shot would be wise to do so, and that given the time of year, it’s not too late for the vaccine to be effective.

Since flu season can go as late as April, the vaccine – which takes two weeks to become effective and is good for a year – is the No. 1 way to prevent contracting the virus, officials said.

Hussain and Sweeney said, besides getting vaccinated, there are steps that can be taken to avoid getting the flu. Avoiding contact, which is the easiest way to spread the flu, and keeping good hygiene in terms of hand-washing will go a long way in preventing the virus. Along with those steps, anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated should avoid touching their eyes and mouth so that the flu carrying germs don’t enter their bodies.

The doctors said there are individuals who should definitely consider getting the flu vaccine if they haven’t already, including those exposed to very young children and older individuals, as well as those in contact with people who are more susceptible to severe reactions to contracting the flu.

“You should get a flu shot if you have, or are exposed to a child less than six months old, because they cannot get a flu shot.” Hussain said. “If you are exposed to someone who is older, 60 or 70, or is living in a home, or has a pre-existing medical condition – you don’t want to expose them, it puts them at a higher risk.”

If you are in contact with someone who have a weakened immune system, you also should consider getting vaccinated. Sweeney said those individuals are at risk to contracting a more severe flu.

“If you have contact with someone who is immuno-suppressed, for instance cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, you should get the flu shot,” he said about the importance of being aware of such individuals. “Because their risk is higher, their immunity is lower, and if they get the flu it could be more severe.”

If you do contract the flu, both doctors and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommend staying home to avoid spreading the virus. If you have to go out, Hussain suggests wearing a mask in order to protect others.

Mathew Plamondon may be reached at 594-1244 or