By Jesse Roman
Flu season is off to a very slow start, but health officials warn that the full brunt of this year's flu virus could be right around the corner.
There have been no confirmed cases of influenza at North Shore Medical Center in Salem, according to DeeDee Suslak, director of infection control. By this time last year, the hospital had seen approximately 100 cases of the flu, she said.
At Beverly Hospital, the situation is the same: only two confirmed cases of the flu this year, compared with 15 cases by this point last year.
The top three strains of flu seen in the Northern Hemisphere have remained the same the last couple of years, "meaning that the seasonal flu vaccine has contained the exact same formulation for the past two flu seasons," said Sharon Cameron, director of health in Peabody.
"It is likely that this milder flu season is due at least in part to increased immunity in the population from repeated exposure to the same circulating strains of flu virus, as well as to the fact that people have been vaccinated with the same formulation for the past two years."
There has been "a huge push" to vaccinate more people in the last decade or so, and that has paid off, said Susan Irving, a nurse at Beverly Hospital, certified in infection control. "We look at this as a global immunization effort, not just the U.S."
Unfortunately, the good times probably won't last.
"This year is a late start to flu season, but we're not out of the woods yet," said Dr. Barbara Lambl, an infectious disease specialist at North Shore Medical Center.
"The Centers for Disease Control has reported increasing influenza activity over the last two weeks nationwide. In California, it is really high right now. It's just a matter of a few plane rides and a couple of kids on school vacation coming home."
Nationwide, about 15 percent of people with respiratory illnesses who have their saliva swabbed at hospitals come back positive for the influenza virus — a normal level is around 10 percent, Lambl said.
In Massachusetts at the moment, the positive swab rate is between 1.5 and 2.5 percent, she said.
The flu is a tricky thing to predict, and although higher numbers in other states suggest we're about to get a heavy dose of the virus here, it's impossible to know when or how bad it will be.
"Since flu season is beginning later this year, we do not know if we will see an increase in severity or we will continue to see a milder flu season," said Cameron, Peabody's health director.
Doctors recommend getting vaccinated if you have not done so already. The virus has the potential to hang around well into April, so there's a long way to go before we're in the clear.
"It is helpful to note that getting a flu vaccine helps protect not only the individual receiving the vaccine, but also their family and friends, as well as those who are unable to get vaccinated due to underlying medical conditions," Cameron said.
Pharmacies, doctors' offices and local health departments will typically give patients the vaccine into May, and this year's batch is very effective.
"The vaccine is well-matched with the current virus strains we're seeing across the country," Lambl said.
A DOSE OF PREVENTION
Get a flu shot.
Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
Wash hands often with soap and water or alcohol.
Keep alcohol wipes handy to wipe down shopping cart handles, telephones, shared keyboards and other things that could carry the virus.