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Experts predict rough flu season

The coming influenza season is likely to be a rough one, for a couple of reasons.

Testing shows that an H3N2 strain is emerging as the predominant flu virus this fall and viruses of that type typically cause the most severe illness among older people.

Compounding the threat: The H3N2 strain doesn’t match up with this year’s flu vaccine, because it emerged too late.

But a flu shot still helps, and Dr. Joan Baumbach, New Mexico’s deputy state epidemiologist, says it’s more important than ever for everyone to get vaccinated.

The vaccine still offers protection from flu, even if the virus has mutated, or “drifted,” from the strain targeted by the vaccine, she said.

“We have a lot of evidence that, even when we have these drifted viruses, vaccines still protect a lot of folks and prevent flu-related complications,” she said.

“The important thing is not to delay.”

Vaccination also can reduce the severity of illness and prevent deaths, particularly for seniors and young children, and people with chronic illness, Baumbach said.

“When we get vaccinated, we are protecting others, particularly the super-vulnerable,” she said.

Baumbach also stressed that people at high risk of complications should seek prompt medical attention for flu symptoms and seek anti-viral medications, which provide a “second line of defense” against flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that more than 60 percent of the flu virus in circulation is the drifted H3N2 strain – called A/Switzerland – which began to show up this year after drugmakers began manufacturing vaccine for the 2014-15 flu season.

Dr. Randall Knott, a pediatrician at the University of New Mexico Hospital, recommended that parents get their children vaccinated with the FluMist nasal-spray flu vaccine, which provides a broad range of protection against a wide variety of flu viruses.

The nasal vaccine is available only to people ages 50 and younger, but prevents children from infecting older family members, he said.

“The FluMist is a great option this year, and they need to do it soon,” Knott said. Flu cases “just spike up, especially with the holidays and travel, and everyone all congregating together.”

Flu remains at low levels in New Mexico, state Department of Health data show. Flu season typically peaks from January to March.

But flu has become more prevalent in other states, including Colorado and Texas, and is likely to pick up quickly in New Mexico, Knott said.

Flu season “is going to hit,” he said. “It’s hitting really hard and it’s coming our way.”

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