Flu outbreak prompts Boston mayor to declare health emergency
Health officials said the flu is widespread in 41 states across the country and is blamed for 18 deaths in Massachusetts and 13 in New Hampshire.
Mayor Thomas Menino said the number of reported infections in Boston is already 10 times higher than last season's reported caseload, and said the city would begin offering free flu vaccinations on Saturday in an effort to stem the spread.
"The latest reports show an increasingly tough flu season," Menino told reporters. He urged residents to get vaccinated, saying, "We are less than halfway through the flu season."
The flu season typically picks up in December, builds to a peak in January or February and fades away by late March or early April.
"We're most definitely seeing an increase in flu patients presenting flu-like symptoms," said Joni Spring of Elliot Hospital in Manchester.
"Even at this stage in the game, it's not too late to receive the flu vaccine," Spring said. "It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to be in full effect."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the proportion of people visiting their doctors for flu-like illnesses has doubled in the past four weeks.
Encouraging vaccinations is one of the most effective steps in combating what looks to be a serious strain of the flu, said Dr. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"This is a bad year, there's no question about it. It's going to be, at minimum, moderately severe," Hanage said, adding that the outbreak looks less severe than in 2009 when the dominant strain was the H1N1 swine flu.
The A(H3) strain of flu, which CDC data shows is the most commonly diagnosed this year, tends to bring more severe illness and a longer flu season.
Job-consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas warned that the weak economy could cause the outbreak to spread more quickly because some Americans are reluctant to stay home from work.
"Whether it is motivated by job security or a desire to continue making a contribution in an overburdened workplace, 'presenteeism,' as it has come to be called, only spreads illness to more workers and further damages the employers' ability to meet demand," said John Challenger, the firm's chief executive.
Public health officials urged people to stay home from work or school if they become ill, but not necessarily to rush to the hospital, particularly if they are between the ages of 5 and 65 and otherwise healthy.
"What we don't want ... is people just pouring into the emergency departments; we would really like people to contact their health care provider," said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.
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