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Flu is hitting Maryland earlier and harder

A Walgreens employee holds a syringe during a free flu shot clinic at Allen Temple Baptist Church on December 19, 2014 in Oakland, California.
A Walgreens employee holds a syringe during a free flu shot clinic at Allen Temple Baptist Church on December 19, 2014 in Oakland, California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The flu season is off to an earlier and stronger start, sending 2,300 people to the hospital with influenza-like symptoms in Maryland, accounting for about 4.9 percent of all emergency department visits, according to state data collected from some participating medical providers.

Nationally, about 4.4 percent of emergency visits are for flu symptoms — such as aches, fever and coughing — and 45 children have died, elevating the season to epidemic levels, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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(Most adults are not tested for the flu, and there are no requirements that adult deaths are reported to the CDC.)

Some blame may lie with this year's vaccine. The CDC recently said it reduces the risk of having to visit the doctor by just 23 percent; the number is usually close to 60 percent.

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The problem: This year's mix of vaccine strains doesn't match those circulating. Specifically, the H3N2 strain that was included in the vaccine "drifted," or mutated enough to lose effectiveness.

It's too early to say if there will be an overall increase in flu cases, because the season lasts until May, said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, an infectious disease expert and director of the department of hospital epidemiology and infection control at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But Maragakis, along with state and federal public health officials, still recommends getting the vaccine.

"Definitely ask your doctor or health care provider for a flu shot, because even this late in the season, it may still offer some protection or moderate the flu if you get it," she said. "The CDC recommends that everyone six months or older get a flu shot every year because it is an effective way of boosting the immune system to fight circulating strains of flu virus."

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She also noted another important method of preventing flu's spread: hand-washing.

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