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National experts and local mom promote flu vaccine after severe 2012 flu season

There’s no official start to flu season, but experts say they know it when they see it: dreary, cold, gray days sometime in October. Days New Hampshire will likely see next week, actually.

The state has had one confirmed case of the flu this fall, diagnosed Sept. 20. Incidents of the flu in North America tend to peak in February, but last year peaked early, in late December.

Last year was, overall, a “moderately severe” season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The early peak, however, made for some alarming numbers.

It hit New England especially hard, with more than 750 cases in Boston alone by mid-January, prompting the mayor to declare a state of emergency for the city. At least 44 people in New Hampshire, including three children, died from the flu or complications related to it.

More than 22,000 flu cases were reported nationwide by Dec. 31, 2012. In the same period of 2011, only 849 flu cases had been reported.

The 2011-12 season, however, was one of the mildest since the CDC began keeping records, making 2012-13 look especially bad in comparison, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt and immediate past president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

“We were all lulled into complacency two years ago, and . . . there’s no clear answer for why last year it hit Boston harder than (other places),” Schaffner said. “It’s just inexplicable. Flu is fickle.”

“If you’ve seen one flu season, we like to say, you’ve seen one flu season,” said Marcella Jordan Bobinsky, immunization section chief at the New Hampshire Division of Public Health Services.

Health officials urge all people to get vaccinated against the flu unless otherwise told not to by their doctor, to prevent spreading the flu to people who can’t get vaccinated. Until a few years ago, flu vaccines were mainly recommended for children and the elderly.

Of the 160,000 doses of flu vaccine available for New Hampshire children, the state believes about 100,000 are still available, Bobinsky said. The vaccines are available free for children between 6 months and 19 years old, purchased through the New Hampshire Immunization Program, with funds provided largely by insurance companies and supplemented by Medicaid and the state budget.

Six-year-old Aidan Lamonthe is getting his shot soon. So will mom Jill Teeters and the rest of the family, who live in Manchester.

Teeters is part of the March of Dimes’ Word of Mom promotional campaign that has brought out women in each state to discuss why they choose to vaccinate their families.

Aidan was born 12 weeks premature – on Columbus Day, instead of his New Year’s due date, Teeters said.

“Premies are not strong enough to combat some of the things out there, so we learned early on how important vaccinations are,” Teeters said. “I would hate to have to say, ‘If I had only.’ ”

She said she knew that vaccines have become a controversial topic in recent years, but that she relied on her doctor and Aidan’s pediatrician for advice.

“I’m not a doctor, I’m not a medical expert. When I hear someone saying they aren’t going to get vaccinated because they heard so-and-so say something, I voice what I know and what has been my experience with vaccines. Everyone has to make the best decisions for their own family, but (March of Dimes) wants them to make it an informed decision,” she said.

Varieties available

Flu shots are recommended each year because each year, experts expect a different strain of the virus to be the most prevalent. Throughout the summer in the Northern Hemisphere, officials track the flu through the winter in the Southern Hemisphere and prepare a vaccine based on which strains appear to be growing in strength.

This year, several varieties of vaccine are available.

∎ The standard flu vaccine that has been available for several years is considered trivalent; that is, it protects against three strains of the virus, usually two strains of what is known as influenza A and one strain from the influenza B family. The two influenza A strains in the vaccine this year, H1N1 and H3N2, were included in last year’s vaccine. The influenza B strain is different than what was in last year’s vaccine.

∎ Manufacturers have also released limited quantities of a quadrivalent vaccine, one that protects against four strains of the illness. It includes an additional strain of influenza B. It is not approved for use in infants under 6 months of age or people with other specific restrictions.

∎ Senior citizens can also obtain a version of the vaccine that is four times as potent.

Schaffner, who sits on a committee of the medical review board that has read as-yet unpublished results of a study of the stronger vaccine, said the results show it to be better at preventing illness in older patients.

He and his wife both received the stronger shot this year, he said.

“She had no problem, and she’s kind of a baby about pain. I got it and I got a bit more of a sore arm than in years past, and I’m pretty sure I had a degree of fever that night, but it was gone by morning,” he said.

∎ This is the first year a vaccine is available for people with severe allergies to eggs. In previous years, all of the vaccines were cultivated in egg cells; a new version is available that was not.

∎ A nasal spray vaccine is also available, but is recommended only for people between ages 2 and 50.

Though months of research go into choosing the strains for each vaccine, officials cannot be certain other strains will not be prevalent.

“The CDC stopped many years ago trying to predict how severe the influenza season was going to be,” Schaffner said. “The researchers are working trying to make a better vaccine, but in the meantime, we have a pretty good one. While we’re wondering and fretting about when it will start and what strain it might be, let’s all get vaccinated.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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