Vaccine best bet to fight off the flu

Wash your hands. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Keep your hands away from your eyes, mouth and nose.

The same things your mother told you as a child are still critical today as the nation experiences what is expected to be its worst flu season in a decade.

And it’s early, too. The flu season just got under way two months ago and can run as late as April or early

That’s precisely what has health experts on edge – that and the fact that the traditional flu season is being supplemented by the arrival of a new kind of intestinal bug and the worst outbreak of whooping cough in more than 50 years.

Overall, based on the week ending Dec. 29, all but seven states and the District of Columbia were experiencing a “widespread” outbreak of the flu, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Hampshire wasn’t among the exceptions.

How bad is it? Consider:

• Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency Wednesday in response to 700 confirmed cases of the flu – 10 times more than all of last year – along with four flu-related deaths.

On Thursday, he followed that up with 45,000 automated calls to Boston residents, urging them to get a flu vaccine if they hadn’t already done so. Across Massachusetts, 18 deaths have been attributed to the flu.

• Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pa., has erected a heated tent outside the hospital to treat those patients with mild symptoms and keep them isolated from the more serious cases inside. The hospital has been treating 80-100 people suffering from flu-like symptoms a day. So far, 22 flu-related deaths have been recorded statewide.

• And Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago has been treating so many patients with the flu – the most in at least a dozen years, officials say – that the hospital has been placed on “bypass.” That means ambulances transporting patients in stable condition are being directed to nearby hospitals because of the high volume of flu patients.

In New Hampshire, 13 deaths were attributed to the flu in December, considerably more than in recent years. While none of the deaths has involved children, Dr. Jose Montero, the state’s public health director, warned the virus can spread easily among schools and day care centers.

“The previous two years were really mild seasons. We only saw four or five per month, so seeing 13 is a huge jump,” he said.

So what can Greater Nashua residents do to protect themselves during this nasty flu season?

First and foremost, get vaccinated if you haven’t already done so, according to the CDC. Contact your doctor, your local public health department or an area pharmacy that offers that service.

You should also avoid close contact with people who are sick – and vice versa. If you are coming down with flu-like symptoms, stay away from work, school or other public places.

As we mentioned earlier, cover your mouth with your sleeve when you cough or sneeze, so that you can prevent the spread of germs to others. And avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose in case you touch something that has been contaminated.

Finally, wash your hands frequently – long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice is a common rule – with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer.

Apparently, your mom knew what she was talking about.