Flu season is underway in Maryland — the state's first confirmed diagnosis was reported last week — but it's too early to say if it will be as severe as the 2014 season, the state's top epidemiologist said.
Health officials are hopeful this year's flu vaccine will offer stronger protection than last year's, which didn't quite match one of the four common strains of the virus. The vaccine was updated to better match two of those strains, said Dr. David Blythe, director of the state health department's infectious diseases bureau.
The state's first case this season came a month later than it did last year. But otherwise, there is no gauge to compare to the 2014-2015 season, which was considered severe, causing 3,700 hospitalizations and the death of one child.
"It's a little early to say what are going to be the dominant strains that are circulating," Blythe said.
It's difficult to precisely track flu cases because they are rarely confirmed in labs and don't usually require hospitalization. But state health officials said last year's flu season was more intense than usual for a couple of reasons.
Last season's predominant flu strain, H3N2, is generally associated with more severe illness. That strain also mutated slightly between the time last year's vaccine was determined and the flu season began, according to a state health department report.
This year's vaccine is thought to be a better match for the H3N2 strain, Blythe said.
The state's first case was of the strain H1N1, and this year's vaccine should guard against that variant, health officials said.
Even if another vaccine mismatch arises this year, residents should get their flu shots, Blythe said. If possible, residents should seek out the vaccine that guards against four strains — known as quadrivalent.