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The sniffling and coughing season

Flu season is upon us again, but authorities say it won't exhibit as mild a form this year as in seasons past. On Friday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially declared flu an epidemic in Maryland and 46 other states, meaning the number of new cases significantly exceeds what would be expected during a normal year. Health officials are stockpiling vaccine and making it available at hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and doctors' offices, but members of the public have to do their part as well by doing everything possible to get vaccinated before they get sick.

More than 15,000 Marylanders so far have been struck by symptoms serious enough to send them to hospital emergency rooms or doctors' offices for treatment, according to the CDC. So far there have been no reported deaths in the state, though 20 people across the country have died of flu, all of them children.

Because flu is not a reportable illness, the actual number of flu victims in the state could be much higher than official numbers suggest. Doubtless, many thousands more people have resigned themselves to suffer in silence while hoping the illness will eventually run its course with bed rest and hot tea.

In truth, there's not much doctors can do once a person starts exhibiting flu-like symptoms — coughing, sneezing, sore throat and runny nose — so the first line of defense is vaccination against the virus. That will often mitigate the symptoms and shorten the length of time people stay sick, even if it doesn't prevent them from coming down with flu altogether. Most of the patients in Maryland who turn up seeking treatment for more serious symptoms, such as fever, aches, chills and diarrhea, are people who weren't vaccinated or who received the vaccine too late to be fully effective.

Even so, city and state health officials say getting vaccinated late is better than never because the peak months for infection are this month and next, and the epidemic won't begin to taper off until sometime in March. Though last week the number of cases of influenza-like illnesses appeared to dip slightly compared to the previous week's totals, experts say it's far too early to know whether that trend will continue in coming weeks. In the meantime, area hospitals report that so many people are coming in with flu symptoms that they've stopped testing people for the virus.

That's all the more reason for people to still get vaccinated as soon as possible. The most vulnerable groups are children 6 months to 18 years; senior citizens, especially those living in group homes or retirement communities; pregnant women; and people with serious chronic illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, HIV and emphysema. In Baltimore City, African-Americans are at particular risk because of the prevalence of such conditions in their communities. But the CDC recommends vaccination for everyone, not just vulnerable populations.

Both the city and state governments have put up websites offering residents information about immunization sites, with addresses, hours of operation, costs and telephone numbers so people can call ahead to find the closest vaccination site. The city also operates two immunization centers run by the health department where people can get vaccinated, one at 1800 North Charles St., and one at 620 N. Caroline St.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and city Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot have been spreading the word on local radio and TV stations about the need for people to get vaccinated. That's good because apparently there are many people who still believe, incorrectly, that getting a flu shot can actually cause influenza. Public officials need to combat such misinformation, which can lead people to avoid getting vaccinated and thus increase their chances of coming down with the illness and spreading it to others. It cannot be said too many times that the vaccine won't cause influenza but will protect people against the virus that causes it — if only they will take the time to immunize themselves against infection.

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