This season’s flu is worse than in years past, in part because Americans haven’t seen this strain in a while and don’t have immunity.
State health officials believe it could get worse before it gets better.
State epidemiologist Stephen Sears said Maine is seeing an earlier flu season and one that’s more severe. Although doctors don’t have to report individual cases of influenza, they do have to report clusters. As of Dec. 18, the state had seen 13 outbreaks, a number higher than usual for this time of year.
Also, a school-age child died of the flu in Maine this month, the first child death from the flu in at least a couple of years.
Maine, Sears said, is mirroring the flu situation in much of the rest of the country.
Since 2009, the predominant flu strain has been H1N1. This year, the principal strain is H3N2. Although the flu vaccine protects against both, plus a third strain, people who don’t get vaccinated don’t have a good natural immunity to this year’s predominant strain because it hasn’t been around in a while, Sears said.
Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston has seen the effects firsthand as patients with both flu symptoms and related upper respiratory infections fill the emergency room.
“It’s been packed over the weekend,” hospital spokesman Chuck Gill said.
St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston also had a busy weekend. Spokesman Russ Donahue said the hospital’s emergency room saw a “significant spike” in flu cases, with some sick patients admitted to the hospital. That rush of cases continued through Christmas and into Thursday.
In an effort to prevent the spread of flu, St. Mary’s medical practices are encouraging flu patients who call not to come in. Instead, they are advising people over the phone and sending very sick patients to the emergency room.
Sears expects the flu to spread more after the holidays as travelers return home and children go back to school.
He urges people to get flu shots now.
“It’s not too late,” he said.
He also urges those who are sick to stay home, wash their hands often and cough into their sleeves, not their hands.
Flu symptoms include sore throat, cough, fever, body aches, stuffy nose and headache.
The worst of the flu typically lasts for five days, Sears said. The cough associated with it can last another week or two.
The flu season typically lasts from Thanksgiving to the end of March in Maine, Sears said, with the worst of it over a six-week to two-month period.
H3N2 is different from H3N2v, a new strain of swine flu for which there is no vaccine.
That virus spreads from pigs to humans. A couple of cases of that flu were reported in Maine last year.
An earlier version of this story should have said the season's predominant flu virus, which is covered in this year's flu vaccine, is H3N2. The swine flu, for which there is currently no vaccine, is H3N2v. The information was incorrectly submitted to the Sun Journal.