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January 04. 2013 10:36PM

Doctors bracing for flu patients

Dr. Ellen Bernard's Epping office has been a busy place the past couple of weeks.

Like other medical offices across New Hampshire, Epping Health has seen a sudden spike in appointments, with patients seeking relief from high fevers, coughing, achiness and overall misery.

Bernard expected to see a lot of flu cases in February and March, but not so many so early in the season.

"I don't remember seeing it this early before and this bad," she said.

And some of the patients she's seen received the flu vaccine but still got hit.

The flu is widespread in 41 states, with 29 states reporting high levels of influenza-like illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Hampshire is among 10 states reporting low levels of flu-like illness, but state health officials said cases are on the rise.

"I think it's a very active season and early, in comparison to the last couple of years. The last couple of seasons were milder and peaks were well after January," said Chris Adamski, the state's bureau chief of infectious diseases.

The calls began picking up at Derry Medical Center a week before Christmas and have shown no sign of slowing down.

"It's really starting to hit. We expect the next few weeks we'll continue at this high rate," said Susan Chadwick, director of marketing at Derry Medical Center, which has offices in Derry, Londonderry and Windham.

Doctors have been squeezing patients in for a visit on the same day they call, Chadwick said, and Saturday's schedule is packed with appointments for those like the family of five who visited the office last Saturday and all tested positive for the flu.

Local doctors said it's not too late to get the flu vaccine, unless you're already sick. Since flu season can last into late spring, a flu shot now could still help in the months ahead, although doctors stress that the vaccine won't prevent all cases of the flu.

One reason for the severity of the flu this season may be the type of virus being passed around.

According to the CDC, about 76 percent of the viruses being reported are the influenza A (H3H2) virus, which often contributes to a more severe season.

The H3H2 virus, a second influenza A virus (H1N1) and an influenza B virus are included in the vaccine being used in this year's flu shots, Adamski said.

While the CDC says 91 percent of the influenza viruses analyzed so far are the ones in the vaccine, health officials said there's no guarantee that a person won't catch the flu even after receiving the shot because there could be other strains circulating.

In addition, Adamski said some people may have become ill because they were vaccinated recently and their body hasn't had enough time to build up antibodies.

The vaccine isn't perfect, Adamski said, "but it's the best tool that we have."

Adamski urged people with underlying medical conditions to consult with their health care provider if they experience flu-like symptoms. She said it's also important to check with your doctor if symptoms persist or if a person begins experiencing chest pain or shortness of breath because the flu can lead to pneumonia.

Lamprey Health Care, with offices in Nashua, Newmarket and Raymond, has seen more patients with upper respiratory distress from both the flu and pneumonia.

"We've definitely seen an increase, and many have tested positive for the flu," said Ann Peters, CEO of Lamprey Health Care.

Dr. Martin Schwartzberg, a pediatrician at River Road Pediatrics in Bedford, said his office began seeing children with influenza-like symptoms at the end of November into December.

As a pediatrician, Schwartzberg is especially concerned about children, who are at a higher risk of experiencing breathing difficulties and pneumonia. Because children under 6 months old can't be vaccinated, he said it's important that other family members receive the flu vaccine "so those babies are kept as safe as possible."

The CDC has reported as many as 18 children nationwide have died from flu-like symptoms so far this season.

"My hope is that it will peak soon and perhaps we'll have an early season and we'll be past it much sooner," Schwartzberg said.

jschreiber@newstote.com

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