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New Jersey’s Flu Season Could Still Be Eased With Available Vaccines

Flu shots not very effective against early strain of virus but could head off problems later in the year

o'dowd flu shot
NJ Commissioner of Health Mary O'Dowd getting her flu shot.

This winter’s flu season has been nasty in New Jersey, but there may be hope for those who’ve gotten their flu shots.

The number of patients who test positive for influenza is running well above the average for recent years, according to hospital emergency departments and nursing homes that report to state health officials. New Jersey is one of 43 states reporting widespread flu activity. There is a high level of activity in northern and central New Jersey, with moderate levels in South Jersey, according to a state report through this past Saturday.

“This year, we had a slightly earlier start with an increase of activity in general about two or three weeks ago,” said Dr. Christina Tan, the state epidemiologist and an assistant health commissioner.

The influenza vaccine used to prepare for this season wasn’t a good match for the subtype of the virus that’s been more common so far this year, which is known as H3N2. That’s bad news, since patients in years when H3N2 is prevalent tend to experience more severe symptoms and require more trips to their doctors, Tan said.

She noted the difficulty that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has every year in trying to predict which flu subtypes will be most .

“It’s a big crystal ball as far as whether they have accurately predicted what’s going to circulate in a given season,” Tan said.

While the vaccines may not have helped much so far, they may be more effective in preventing the strains of flu, known as “influenza B” that are frequently more common late in the flu season. Therefore, residents who’ve already received flu shots may still benefit from them, and public-health officials encourage those who haven’t been vaccinated to get a shot, since influenza B could peak in February. It takes two weeks for the flu vaccine to provide immunity to the three or four subtypes included in the shot.

The importance of getting flu vaccines was highlighted in October -- before the season started -- by Dr. David Cennimo of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. Noting the widespread alarm about Ebola and enterovirus, Cennimo indicated that more New Jerseyans would die as a result of the flu this year than either of these more-feared viruses.

Along with getting flu shots and practicing good hygiene, including washing hands frequently and staying home from work or school when feeling ill, residents can limit the spread of the flu by visiting their doctor when they feel ill.

For example, 40-year-old Voorhees mother Nicole A. Born died on Sunday after delaying seeking medical attention, according to a report in the Courier-Post. Born’s father told the reporter that Born didn’t have time to take care of herself because everyone else in their family was sick, according to the report.

Tan said those concerned about their health should consult their doctors.

“If you have any sort of underlying conditions, people need to be aware of their conditions and talk to their docs about that,” she said.

Tan wouldn’t hazard a guess as to whether New Jersey stands at or near the peak of the number of new flu cases for the season. She noted that in some years, an early start to the flu season leads to an early peak, while in other years it merely signals that the flu would remain severe throughout the season.

“Flu is so unpredictable,” Tan said. “It’s really hard to tell -- that’s why we just continue to monitor the activity.”

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