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January 30. 2013 9:54PM

In NH, 'It's a bad flu year'

A hard-hitting flu season so far resulted in 35 New Hampshire deaths, including a child under 5 who died last week.

State public health officials said this season's death toll is the highest since the state introduced its current method of collecting influenza-related data 16 years ago.

"The flu deaths this year are a record (level) since 1979," Dr. Jodie Dionne-Odom said Wednesday.

"It's a bad flu year. It's not too late to get the (flu) shot," said Dionne-Odom, who is state deputy epidemiologist.

The trend is consistent with increases in flu-related deaths and outbreaks nationally, particularly among those 65 years and older, she said.

The first child to die from flu-related symptoms this season was younger than five, but older than six months, the minimum age at which health officials recommend children get vaccinated, she said.

She would not release the child's age, gender, date of death, hometown, or say whether the child died in a hospital. She also would not say if the child had been vaccinated against the flu.

She cited the state's patient confidentiality and privacy regulations for withholding the information.

"We don't give out these details unless there was a public health reason that (releasing) those details would be necessary," Dionne-Odom continued.

There were 13 flu-related deaths in December, the highest number recorded in New Hampshire since 1979, she said. Another 22 deaths occurred so far this month, another record, she said.

New Hampshire experienced widespread influenza-related activity the last seven weeks in a row, Dionne-Odom said. While the season officially lasts to May, she said the heaviest activity traditionally continues through the end of February.

The good news is that the flu vaccine being used this season has been effective and the number of flu cases and outbreaks being reported by doctors and hospitals declined last week compared to the prior week, Dionne-Odom said.

Health care providers reported 0.4 percent of patients treated last week had flu-like illnesses, she said. This compares with 2 percent of the cases the week prior.

Dionne-Odom advised anyone who didn't get the vaccine to do so, noting that the vaccine is the single most effective way of preventing the flu and has been very effective.

"It (the vaccine) is a very good match. The three (flu) strains that are in the vaccine are matching the three strains that are circulating out there," she said. They include the H3N2 strain, which is most predominant and severe form of the virus, she said.

Hospitals in Cheshire, Merrimack, Rockingham and Strafford counties reported "very high" levels of acute respiratory illness during the week of Jan. 13-19, the state said. Grafton and Hillsborough County hospitals reported "high" activity during that same time. Those in Coos and Sullivan counties saw moderate activity. Belknap and Carroll counties report elevated activity.

The flu is spread from person to person through secretions from coughing and sneezing. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, extreme fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, stuffy nose and muscle aches.

kmarchocki@unionleader.com





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