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Flu shots urged as season gets late start

Get that flu shot now if you haven’t already, because influenza season is making a late arrival in New Mexico and the rest of the United States, health officials warn.

The good news is that flu season is relatively mild this year, probably because the flu vaccine is well-matched to flu strains in circulation.

Flu cases in New Mexico began ramping up in recent weeks, “and that corresponds with what is happening nationally,” said Marisa Bargsten, a New Mexico Department of Health epidemiologist.

“The season started a little bit later than we’ve seen in the past three seasons, but we’re expecting that it will probably stay elevated for the next few weeks,” she said.

Flu season this year hasn’t packed the wallop of previous years, but the viral illness delivers death and serious illness every year.

Nine New Mexicans have died of flu-related illness this season – a figure similar to that of this time last year, Bargsten said. In all, flu killed 27 New Mexicans during the 2014-15 flu season.

The season can extend from October through May. Flu cases in recent years have peaked in December or January, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Mexico hospitals have recently been hammered by an illness unrelated to flu called respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, an infection of the lungs and breathing passages that can be especially dangerous for children and older adults, said Dr. Randall Knott, a University of New Mexico Hospital pediatrician.

RSV has kept hospital beds full at UNMH for the past six weeks, as it does each winter, Knott said. RSV cases are now tapering off, but the number of flu cases are picking up, he said.

To date, flu hospitalizations are down significantly from last year.

Through March 18, New Mexico had less than half the rate of hospitalizations for flu compared with the same period last season, according to Department of Health data.

The flu virus is transmitted through sneezes, coughs and touching infected surfaces. Symptoms include a sudden onset of fever, dry cough, sore throat, fatigue, headache and muscle pain. Children may also experience nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. No New Mexico children have died of flu-related illness this season.

The effectiveness of the flu vaccine this year probably helps explain why the flu season arrived late and is relatively mild this year, but flu remains a menacing illness. At least three children are currently hospitalized with flu at UNMH, Knott said.

“It’s a reminder that flu is a very dangerous disease and it’s still a good idea to get a flu vaccine if you haven’t had one,” Knott said.

Flu “is peaking now, and it is peaking in our part of the country. People should not be complacent about getting vaccinated.”

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