Maryland hasn’t been immune to the country’s struggle with the flu this winter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza is widespread in every state in the continental U.S. And the latest data from the Maryland Department of Health reported that about 3.4 percent of visits to doctors in the state were for flu-like illnesses the first week of January, up from the 2 percent baseline.
Hospitalizations and emergency room visits related to the flu are also up versus the past two years in Maryland and across the country, particularly among people over the age of 50 and children younger than 5.
Dr. Henry Taylor, Carroll County’s deputy health officer, said this is the first year out of the last 13 where flu is widespread everywhere. “It’s hit everywhere, it’s hitting more quickly and hitting target populations more severely,” Taylor told us.
Why is the flu so bad this year?
For one, the flu shot isn’t as effective as it has been in years past, particularly against the H3N2 strain that appears to be the most prevalent. That’s because while scientists were growing the virus for the vaccine, the strain unexpectedly mutated. That means the strain that is in the flu shot isn’t exactly the same as what is circulating.
As a result, the overall effectiveness of the flu shot this year is expected to be about 10 percent. Typically, it is 40 to 60 percent effective during the flu season.
There is also an influenza B virus subtype in circulation, though that usually hits in the later months. In Maryland, flu season typically lasts well into spring.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a flu shot if you haven’t already. Health experts note that even if it’s not a perfect match, a person who has been vaccinated is likely to experience less intense symptoms and for a shorter time than someone who doesn’t get the shot. And for older and younger populations more vulnerable to the flu and complications related to it, that can be the difference between a couple days home in bed and a trip to the emergency room.
And regarding that B strain, asking for the quadrivalent shot can help protect against those later waves.
The Carroll County Health Department maintains a website with local resources on where to obtain a flu shot at www.cchd.maryland.gov/flu, although you should call ahead to make sure they still have the vaccine in stock this late into the season.
The influenza A virus known as H3N2 was the most common strain in Australia this past flu season. (Nov. 30, 2017)
Because of the ineffectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine, it’s even more important that everyone take precautions and practice good hygiene to prevent the spread of germs. Most importantly, wash your hands frequently; health experts say that is still the most effective way to interrupt the transmission of germs and viruses from one person to another. Avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes. You can also keep a “social distance” from people if you feel like you might be getting sick.
Other healthy habits like keeping hydrated, eating nutritious food and getting exercise can also boost your immune system to stave off the virus.