The flu season has arrived on Cape Cod, and health officials fear it could be worse than usual this year.
“This is kind of coming on quickly,” said Dr. David J. Pombo, medical director of infection prevention for Cape Cod Healthcare. “It’s widespread now.”
The flu hit the New England area about two weeks ago and already has landed people in Cape Cod Hospital, Pombo said.
What’s circulating now is a strain that tends to make people sicker than prior strains and is not a good match for the current flu vaccine, he said.
Less than half the sample viruses collected by federal health officials this fall were a good match for the vaccine, while 52 percent of the H3N2 samples had “drifted” or mutated so they are no longer genetically like the flu vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC says patient visits to doctors for flu-like illness are almost even with the peak of the 2012-2013 season, the last time H3N2 viruses were prevalent, and hospitals are seeing relatively high admission rates for flu as well.
As of this week, there have been 21 cases of children dying from flu this season, the CDC says.
Federal health officials are still advising people to get a flu vaccine, saying there is some crossover protection among strains.
But this year they are also emphasizing the importance of prompt treatment with flu antiviral drugs, especially for people most at risk of serious flu complications including people 65 and older, children younger than age 5, pregnant women and people with health conditions including diabetes and heart disease.
“With the number of cases and trends we’re seeing, we are clearly on an upswing and suspect we will see many more cases in the next few weeks,” said Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Infectious Disease Bureau.
Even though this year’s vaccine doesn’t match well with the most common flu strain, it can still lessen the effects of the flu, Barry said. The vaccine also works well against other strains of the flu virus.
The vaccine, Barry said, typically takes approximately two weeks to begin working. It is a myth, she said, that getting the flu shot can cause the flu.
“I think we’re going to start seeing a lot more influenza cases in the coming weeks, so get yourself protected,” Barry said.
The flu virus is contained in droplets that fall to surfaces and the ground but can also be propelled 6 feet by a forceful cough or sneeze, Pombo said.
He advised frequent hand washing with warm water and soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizers to avoid putting a contaminated hand to one’s mouth, and basic good etiquette to stop the virus from spreading.
“Cover your cough,” Pombo said. “If you’re ill, don’t expose yourself to people.”
The recent cold weather could also help flu proliferate, he said.
“Most viruses are more stable when it’s dry and cold,” Pombo said. Instead of quickly decaying on inanimate surfaces where people can come into contact with them, they linger.
The virus “is infectious for a longer period of time,” he said.
Flu symptoms include coughing, a runny nose, a temperature over 101 degrees and aches and pains.
The amount of virus in secretions and coughs takes time to dissipate, Pombo said. “It doesn’t shut off like a faucet right away.”
He advises flu-stricken people to stay away from other people “until the fever breaks and you’re feeling kind of back to normal,” which could take four to five days.
In rare, mainly pediatric, cases, flu takes the form of encephalitis and symptoms of mental confusion, Pombo said.
Although flu tends to be primarily a respiratory illness affecting the lungs, it also may manifest itself with gastrointestinal symptoms including nausea and vomiting, Pombo said.
Dennis resident John Townsend suspects that his recent bout of queasy, dizzy, achy lethargy was the flu, although he did not go to the doctor to find out.
“It was terrible. I couldn’t really move,” he said.
Townsend got better after a few days and suspects it was a course of flu made shorter by the fact he had a flu and pneumonia shot several weeks ago.
It could have been an unrelated bug, too, he said. Townsend said whatever it was, he also attributes his recovery to his wife’s “killer chicken soup.”
By Cynthia McCormick
Posted Jan. 11, 2015 @ 2:00 am
— Gerry Tuoti, Regional Newsbank Editor for Gatehouse New England, contributed to this report. Follow Cynthia McCormick on Twitter: @Cmccormickcct.