Flu season has arrived on the South Coast, but prevention is still possible

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — Flu season is here and cases are on the rise, but with a few simple measures, you can help limit the spread of this highly infectious disease.

Southcoast Health reports that diagnosed cases of the flu have leveled off to 125 new cases during the week ending Feb. 24. However, this plateau came just a week after flu cases doubled over a two-week period, with 208 new cases during the week ending Feb. 17. In all, the system has seen 913 confirmed flu cases since the season started in the fall, with more than half occurring since Jan. 27. These statistics don’t include patients who, despite their symptoms, tested negative for the virus or who have not sought medical treatment.

The pattern of infection is typical for this time of year, which normally is peak flu season. The number of cases will fall rapidly toward the end of April, said Deborah Hylander, R.N., Southcoast Health’s Director of Infection Prevention. And while this is not a particularly bad year for the flu, she urges people to take measures to avoid it.

Prevention starts with a flu shot, and if you haven’t gotten one, it’s not too late, Hylander said. The vaccine takes two weeks to become fully effective, so you will still be at some risk of infection while your body builds its immunity. But the severity of symptoms could be reduced, and people who get flu shots every year can retain a level of immunity that will protect them as they respond to the new vaccine.

Dr. Robert Caldas, Southcoast Health Chief Medical Officer, said the vaccine is safe for anyone over 6 months of age, including pregnant women. Because the vaccines are incubated in egg yolks, they were previously thought to be unsuitable for anyone with an egg allergy. That understanding is changing, however, so check with your doctor if you have an egg allergy. You may still be eligible for the vaccine.

Plenty of vaccine is available this year, and it appears to be generally well matched to the A strain of virus that currently is appearing. So schedule a visit with your primary care physician or at one of Southcoast Health’s Urgent Care Centers in Dartmouth, Fairhaven and Wareham to protect you and your family.

If you already have the flu or want to avoid it, there is lots you can do to keep it from spreading.

  • Frequent hand washing is still the primary way to keep yourself healthy.
  • Practice good cough and sneeze etiquette. How you behave when you have the flu can help others stay well or make them sick. Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue. If you use a tissue, dispose of it quickly and properly.
  • If you or someone in your house is sick, make sure you or they stay home until at least 24 hours after the fever subsides. That can take a few days, although flu symptoms will linger for six to 10 days.
  • If the flu is in your home, remember that the virus can live up to eight hours on hard surfaces. Disinfect door knobs, food preparation areas and washrooms.
  • And if you are sick, get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids and avoid tactile contact with family or friends who have not been infected. People with flu can spread it to others up to about six feet away, Centers for Disease Control reports.