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Flu Cases Up in Hamilton, Vaccine Still Available

Local doctor's offices still have flu vaccine available for what is the worst flu season in at least four years.

Cases of influenza in Hamilton have gone from one case at this time last year to 9 cases this year, according to the town's public health nurse, Kim Paskalis.

And at Beverly Hospital, there's been more patients with flu so far this year than at this point of any of the past four flu seasons.

The trend in Hamilton mirrors the trend across the state and nationwide. In Boston, for example, Mayor Thomas Menino declared a health emergency on Wednesday due to Boston's flu outbreak.

A total of 18 people have died from the flu statewide this year, including a child under 6 in Boston on Friday.

There have been more than 700 reported cases in Boston - a city of 625,000 people-  so far this flu season, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. That's 10 times the average number of cases through the entire last year.  

Paskalis said last year was a "very mild season, so the contrast is very noticeable."

The spike in numbers in Hamilton is in line with other communities, she said.

"It is pretty much what everyone is saying," she said.

How can residents avoid contracting the flu? Paskalis offers some simple tips, including frequent hand washing and observing "cough etiquette," which means coughing into your arm.

She has also issued a reminder to the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District that staff and students should say home until they are all better. Anyone should stay home for 24 hours after they no longer have a fever.

The same advice extends to private companies, she said, noting that people with the flu returning to work before they are all better is likely to spread it.

"That's not helping any of us," she said.

She also issued a strong recommendation that everyone get a flu vaccine. Vaccine is still available at Family Medicine Associates in Hamilton for its patients.

A clinic was conducted this past week at Hamilton Town Hall and a regional clinic, with free vaccine, is scheduled for Tuesday in Gloucester and residents of both town are able to participate. It is at Addison Gilbert Hospital from 9-11 a.m.

At Beverly Hospital, the hospital has seen 99 patients with flu so far this year, said Dr. Mary Anna Sullivan, the Chief Quality and Safety Officer for Lahey Health, which owns the hospital.

"Patients who have been diagnosed with flu are responding  to treatment and are doing well," Sullivan said.

For the staff, 97 percent have received a flu shot, she said, and very few hospital staff members have had to be out of work.

"This has allowed us to quickly respond to the increase in patient volume and continue providing excellent care," she said, also encouraging anyone who is sick to not visit their friends and family in the hospital.

Flu cases now account for over 4 percent of all emergency department visits at Boston hospitals, compared to about 1 percent during non-influenza season, according to the Boston Public Health Commission.  Of influenza cases reported to date in Boston residents, 25 percent have been ill enough to require hospitalization.

While cases are up in Hamilton and the number of people with the flu showing up at hospitals is also up, it has not led to a health emergency as it did in Boston.

“This is the worst flu season we’ve seen since 2009, and people should take the threat of flu seriously,” Mayor Menino said of the issue in his city.  “This is not only a health concern, but also an economic concern for families, and I’m urging residents to get vaccinated if they haven’t already. It’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family. If you’re sick, please stay home from work or school.”

Certain people, including the elderly, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or other conditions), are at greater risk for serious illness if they get influenza.  Some individuals may not be at risk for severe illness themselves, but can transmit the infection to others.

Everyone ages 6 months and older is recommended to get a flu shot and there is a widget above to find flu shots at pharmacies, clinics and other locations nearby.

"It's not too late," Paskalis said, adding that it takes about two weeks to become fully effective. The season is not over and will last until April or possibly May, she said.

This year's vaccine is very effective against the current strain of the flu, Paskalis said.

"It's a good match," she said.

The Red Cross offers several tips to reduce your exposure to the flu, like washing your hands often, coughing and sneezing into your elbow instead of your hand and others on this list. 

You can also find basic flu information about protecting, preparing and caring for yourself and others from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

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