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Ear to the Ground

Flu Rears Its Ugly, Epidemic Head

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Posted on Jan 10, 2013
JacobMetcalf (CC BY 2.0)

Flu is leading the winter sickness season as three trends stand out: The illness is striking early, a new norovirus is surging and health care professionals are witnessing the worst whooping cough outbreak in 60 years.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino on Wednesday declared a public health emergency amid a rush of flu patients to hospital emergency rooms in his city.

“Google’s national flu trend maps, which track flu-related searches, are almost solid red (for ‘intense activity’) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly FluView maps, which track confirmed cases, are nearly solid brown (for ‘widespread activity’),” The New York Times reported.

“Yesterday, I saw a construction worker, a big strong guy in his Carhartts who looked like he could fall off a roof without noticing it,” Dr. Beth Zeeman, an emergency room doctor at MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, Mass., told the Times. “He was in a fetal position with fever and chills, like a wet rag. When I see one of those cases, I just tighten up my mask a little.”

Experts are urging those who haven’t yet received their shots to get them immediately. People who have their doubts about the safety of vaccination should read this recent article by Eula Biss in Harper’s Magazine, which debunks common myths surrounding the issue.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

The New York Times:

Nationally, deaths and hospitalizations are still below epidemic thresholds. But experts do not expect that to remain true. Pneumonia usually shows up in national statistics only a week or two after emergency rooms report surges in cases, and deaths start rising a week or two after that, said Dr. Gregory A. Poland, a vaccine specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The predominant flu strain circulating is an H3N2, which typically kills more people than the H1N1 strains that usually predominate; the relatively lethal 2003-4 “Fujian flu” season was overwhelmingly H3N2.

No cases have been resistant to Tamiflu, which can ease symptoms if taken within 48 hours, and this year’s flu shot is well-matched to the H3N2 strain, the C.D.C. said. Flu shots are imperfect, especially in the elderly, whose immune systems may not be strong enough to produce enough antibodies.

Simultaneously, the country is seeing a large and early outbreak of norovirus, the “cruise ship flu” or “stomach flu,” said Dr. Aron J. Hall of the C.D.C.’s viral gastroenterology branch. It includes a new strain, which first appeared in Australia and is known as the Sydney 2012 variant.

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