Flu season is officially here.
Although there's no indication that the season is shaping up to be a severe one, Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, said yesterday that doctors are reporting increasing numbers of patients with flulike symptoms.
In a new system designed to keep the public informed, Sharfstein elevated the city's level of flu awareness from "Minimal Flu" to "Flu Alert," which means there's evidence the virus is spreading. Now is the time, he said, for people to make sure they are vaccinated.
"We want people to continue getting the vaccine through the whole season, but this is the last chance before flu spreads further," Sharfstein said.
The flu season typically peaks in December and January, and continues into February. Statewide, 24 cases of laboratory-confirmed flu had been reported through yesterday. That's on pace for an average year, a state health department spokeswoman said - although an epidemic can take sudden turns.
In Baltimore, two hospital-based clinics that are part of the city's flu-surveillance system reported that 7.1 percent of their patients complained of the coughing, fever and body aches common to the flu - up from 2.1 percent the week before.
Additionally, 16 percent of rapid flu tests were positive for influenza over the past two weeks - up from zero in the preceding weeks. The rapid tests make use of nasal secretions and produce results in a doctor's office.
For the first time, the city has employed a seasonal flu plan designed to keep the public informed about disease activity and to marshal appropriate resources, depending on the level.
The third and highest level is a "Severe Flu Warning," which would be issued if hospitals are flooded with patients. Sharfstein said he wants people to grow accustomed to the system, particularly because it is similar to one planned in the event of pandemic flu.
Dr. Kwang Sik Kim, director of pediatric infectious disease at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, said it's too early to predict whether the flu season will be a serious one.
So far, no patients have been admitted to Hopkins hospital units with the flu, though doctors have treated numerous outpatients with flulike symptoms.
"This is very early in the flu season," Kim said, adding that disease activity is very difficult to predict at this stage. Last year, for example, many experts predicted a severe season early on, but the opposite proved true.
Whatever the level, he said the disease is preventable through vaccination. Young children are particularly vulnerable to flu's complications, so parents should make an effort to get them vaccinated, he said.
The vaccine is recommended for youngsters age 6 months to 5 years, and for pregnant or breast-feeding women, people over 50 and anyone with a chronic medical condition.
It is also recommended for health care workers and people living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Parents and caregivers of children younger than 6 months old should also be vaccinated.
Sharfstein also urged people to take precautions against the spread of germs. These include washing hands thoroughly with soap and water - or the use of hand sanitizers. People should cough or sneeze into a sleeve or tissue and keep hands away from the mouth, nose and eyes.
A final precaution: If you're sick, stay home.
Baltimore's weekly surveillance report is available at www.balti morehealth.org/flu. For information about flu vaccines, call 311 or the city Bureau of Child Health and Immunization, 410-396-4454.
A statewide list of flu clinics is available at www.flucliniclocator. org