Get that flu vaccine if you haven’t already, because a long and difficult influenza season is cranking up in New Mexico, health officials warn.
The flu epidemic working its way across the nation has hospitalized at least 88 New Mexicans, including a 2-year-old with a life-threatening brain infection, physicians said Thursday.
Patients with flu-like symptoms who sought treatment at clinics around New Mexico spiked during the last week of December, according to health department records.
Ample supplies of flu vaccine remain available. Free vaccines are available for children 18 and younger at about 500 providers throughout the state.
To find a nearby flu shot clinic, call the Nurse Advice Hotline at 866-681-5872.
To find a public health clinic, visit nmhealth.org/phd/phoffice.shtml.
Flu season “is just starting to pick up, and it’s going to explode over the next six weeks,” predicted Dr. Randall Knott, a pediatrician at University of New Mexico Hospital.
Flu symptoms can include a cough, fever, muscle aches, and fatigue. Other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, are more common among children.
The viral illness has hammered states in the Eastern U.S. since late last year “and it was slowly marching in our direction,” Knott said. “It is definitely, definitely here.”
As of Thursday, at least 55 people had been hospitalized in Bernalillo County with lab-confirmed flu, up from just two cases at this time last year, state Department of Health officials said.
Knott said he is aware of a 2-year-old hospitalized with flu-caused encephalitis, or brain inflammation, which he described as a “devastating” complication.
“The kids we are seeing with flu are those that didn’t get vaccinated,” Knott said. “It’s just paramount that parents get their children vaccinated and get themselves vaccinated.”
The good news is that the influenza vaccine formulated last year closely matches the strains of flu virus in circulation this season, including a dangerous new strain of H3N2.
“This is the year that you want to get a flu vaccine, because it really helps,” Knott said.
Even if you have had the flu this year, don’t assume you are safe, said Dr. Roderick McVeety, urgent care medical director at ABQ Health Partners.
“Anybody who has had the flu and is getting better, I recommend they get the flu shot,” McVeety said Thursday. Several strains of the flu virus are in circulation, he said. “And this is going to be a long flu season – probably into March.”
McVeety and others reported higher-than-usual demand at urgent care clinics throughout the region, particularly since New Year’s Day.
Patients waited up to two hours Wednesday afternoon at MD Urgent Care on Albuquerque’s West Side, where physicians reported an unusual number of patients with cold and flu symptoms.
Health officials also urged New Mexicans – particularly those at greatest risk of serious complications – to seek prompt treatment for flu symptoms.
Antiviral treatments, such as Tamiflu, can offer relief from flu and head off more severe complications, said Dr. Joan Baumbach, medical epidemiologist for the state Department of Health.
Tamiflu, a prescription drug, directly attacks the flu virus and can lessen the duration and severity of flu in adults and children. It should be taken within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms.
Baumbach urged people with flu symptoms to seek prompt treatment to allow health professionals to decide if antiviral treatments are appropriate.
“There are some high-risk groups for whom (antiviral drugs) should be used as early as possible,” Baumbach said.
High-risk groups include older people, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal