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Flu remains widespread in Maine; epidemiologist calls illness ‘significant, severe’

Posted Jan. 11, 2013, at 4:23 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 11, 2013, at 6:12 p.m.

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Certified medical assistant Shannon Martin gives administers a flu shot to a 12-year-old girl at a Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.
Certified medical assistant Shannon Martin gives administers a flu shot to a 12-year-old girl at a Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. Buy Photo
Shannon Martin, a certified medical assistant, prepares a flu shot at Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.
Shannon Martin, a certified medical assistant, prepares a flu shot at Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. Buy Photo
Certified Medical Assistant Shannon Martin gives Kay'l Sibold, 10, a flu shot at a Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.
Certified Medical Assistant Shannon Martin gives Kay'l Sibold, 10, a flu shot at a Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. Buy Photo
Shannon Martin, a certified medical assistant, applies a bandage after giving Kay'l Sibold, 10, a flu shot at a Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013.
Shannon Martin, a certified medical assistant, applies a bandage after giving Kay'l Sibold, 10, a flu shot at a Martin's Point Healthcare pediatric flu clinic in Portland on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. Buy Photo

The flu remains widespread in Maine but the illness’ severity may be easing nationally, according to weekly data released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maine and 46 other states reported widespread flu activity, according to the report, which covers the week of Dec. 30 through Jan 5. That’s up from 41 states the prior week. The only states without widespread flu were Mississippi, California, and Hawaii.

On Wednesday, Boston declared a public health emergency due to a tenfold increase in flu cases.

While the flu spread geographically, the number of states hit hard with people seeking treatment for influenza-like illness at outpatient clinics declined last week. Twenty-four states had high activity, down from 29 last week. Maine was among five states labeled with “minimal” activity, but that doesn’t accurately reflect the flu’s toll here, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears.

Health providers voluntarily report the number of outpatients with flu-like symptoms, he said. With many health clinics crowded with flu patients in recent days, providers are hard pressed to find time to report all those visits, Sears said.

“Every doctor’s office I know is busy seeing people and vaccinating,” he said.

Two more children have died from the flu since last week’s report, bringing the total to 20 nationwide. A child from central Maine died from the flu in mid-December.

Nationally, 7.3 percent of deaths last week were attributed to pneumonia and the flu. That just barely crosses the epidemic threshold of 7.2 percent, according to the CDC.

The CDC doesn’t track adult flu deaths, but Maine public health officials have received anecdotal reports that the flu has claimed some adult lives, as it typically does every season, Sears said. The elderly and people with underlying medical conditions are particularly vulnerable.

“There will be deaths from this,” he said. “This is significant, severe influenza.”

Also Friday, CDC scientists said a recent study of more than 1,100 people found that this season’s flu vaccine is 62 percent effective. That’s considered “moderate” effectiveness and in line with previous years.

The vaccine is reformulated each year to match emerging strains of the illness. This year’s vaccine offers good protection against all three strains circulating nationally, according to health officials.

The CDC still encourages everyone over 6 months of age to be vaccinated against the flu, including those who were immunized last year. While vaccinated people may still get sick with the flu, most experience shorter and less severe symptoms than those who skipped their annual flu shot.

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