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Flu death a rarity, health officials say

Despite the death of a Jamaica Plain teenager from the flu earlier this month, this year’s flu season does not pose an unusually high threat to healthy students, Department of Public Health officials said.

‘We track the number of reported cases of flu every year in this state, and it has been a relatively mild flu season,’ Massachusetts Department of Public Health spokesman John Jacobs said. ‘Looking at the average year to year, it’s not like it’s unusually heavy.’

‘We have seen an uptick in cases in the last four weeks, and flu season peaks in February,’ he said.

Jacobs said there are not any shortages of influenza vaccine supplies, either.

‘The state supplied just over 800,000 doses of vaccine to cities and towns, and about 1.4 million doses came into the state through private supplies,’ he said. ‘We do know that all of the vaccines distributed by the state were distributed to the communities and to the people.’

With news coverage of the flu disproportionately high after the Feb. 14 death of Boston Latin Academy seventh-grader Hunter Pope, Jacobs said fears about the flu virus being deadly are unnecessary.

BU School of Medicine infectious diseases professor Lee Wetzler said the flu is often misinterpreted.

‘The influenza virus doesn’t cause the sniffles alone, and sniffles can’t kill you,’ he said.

Instead, deaths like Pope’s point to secondary infections such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, takes advantage of the body’s crippled immune system after one gets the flu, Wetzler said. MSRA, which is caused by bacteria, is a problem because certain strains are resistant to antibiotics, he said.

‘MRSA isn’t just a skin infection, even though it can present as a skin infection,’ Wetzler said. ‘Influenza damages the lungs, and you’re more prone to get infected on top of that with something like staph, which colonizes the nose and lungs.’

MRSA is something ‘we tend to see in the colder months,’ Jacobs said.

‘We see it oftentimes in school environments with activities with lots of person-to-person or skin-to-surface contact,’ Jacobs said. ‘We’re seeing it more now.’

Still, any panic surrounding the flu since Pope’s death is generally unfounded, Wetzler said.

‘I was really surprised to hear about this,’ Wetzler said. ‘It’s much more the exception than the rule.’

Instead, Wetzler said the pressing issue surrounding influenza is the possible development strain resistant to the antiviral drug Tamiflu.

‘The real problem with the flu this year is a potential resistance to Tamiflu,’ he said. ‘But Tamiflu only decreased symptoms by a couple of days, so that’s minor.’

College of Communication writing professor Tinker Ready said she agreed that flu deaths are somewhat overblown. Ready, a health blogger, pointed to the media coverage of the flu, which in attempting to report on health problems may ‘overplay’ them.

‘Dramatic cases are the ones getting a lot of play in the news and getting the coverage,’ she said. ‘It’s hard to find the right way to play this story, and they can be overplayed and under-explained.’

Jacobs said that for those still concerned about the flu, vaccinations are available.

‘The peak season could stretch into early March, so we encourage people to get vaccinated, even at this stage in the game,’ he said.

Wetzler said the best way to prevent the flu is ‘good hygiene.’

‘How to prevent the flu?’ Wetzler asked. ‘Hand-washing and hand-washing and hand-washing.’

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One Comment

  1. Bethany Campbell

    i agree with Taylor Miles. my bestfriend. and she is really smart.