Is Maine’s flu season really that bad?

A sign advertising the availability of flu shots at a pharmacy in Bangor. Gabor Degre | BDN

A sign advertising the availability of flu shots at a pharmacy in Bangor. Gabor Degre | BDN

The flu has officially struck every county in Maine, according to the latest survey by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Health experts are warning that this flu season could be a doozy, with not only a high number of predicted cases, but also a nasty strain that sent many sufferers to the hospital in past years.

Why the poor prognosis? This flu season is off to an early start, relatively few people are getting vaccinated, and even those rolling up a sleeve for their annual flu shot have less-than-ideal protection. This year’s flu vaccine isn’t well matched to the strain that’s making most people sick.

Public health officials still want you to get a flu shot though. The vaccine will protect you from the other flu strains and often leads to a milder case if you do get sick, according to the CDC.

While the CDC is the official source for flu activity, it’s not the only one. Google’s tracking flu prevalence, and so is a company with Maine ties.

Lab tests

Maine CDC is reporting 682 cases of the flu, with 230 of those cropping up just during the week ending Jan. 3. That’s a notable increase, with Penobscot and Cumberland counties feeling the brunt of the aches and fevers.

The flu is now “widespread” in Maine, a categorization that reflects its reach geographically, not its severity. (More on the severity in a bit.)

During the last season, Maine recorded 1,336 cases of the flu. The prior year, 2012-13, was worse, with 1,844 cases. This season’s off to a relatively slow start, but we’re only about halfway through, so more people are sure to experience the flu’s misery.

These figures reflect cases in which lab tests confirmed influenza, so they underestimate the real prevalence. Many people never get tested, since doctors and nurses often stop culturing for the flu once it’s clearly showing up in the community.

Here’s a look at lab-confirmed cases at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor:

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Influenza A (H3N2) is the strain circulating most widely in Maine and across the country. Flu seasons dominated by that strain tend to have higher hospitalization rates and more flu deaths, especially among children and the elderly, compared with seasons dominated by the influenza A (H1N1) virus or influenza B. Nationally, the CDC estimates 26 children have died from the flu this season.

(RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus, another seasonal bug that causes symptoms similar to the common cold.)

Maine Medical Center in Portland, which started seeing a few flu cases before Christmas, is now treating two to five cases a day, according to Gwen Rogers, director of infection prevention. Both adults and kids have been hospitalized.

Doctor visits

The CDC’s flu data is delayed because it relies on lab tests, which take time to conduct.

But researchers at athenahealth have fresher data. The company provides physician practices with electronic medical records and other software, and has an office in Belfast.

Athena monitors the activity of the 20,000 primary care doctors who use its cloud-based system, including about 150 physicians in Maine. Sifting through insurance claims for diagnoses of “influenza-like illness” — a fever of at least 100 degrees and a cough and/or sore throat — they track the flu in near real-time.

Athena finds that the share of Maine visits where flu is diagnosed is relatively low right now. Maine doesn’t appear to be having a particularly severe season, at least compared to 2012-2013. Influenza-like illness rates dropped from 1 percent for the week ending Dec. 27, 2014, to 0.7 percent for the week ending Jan. 3.

athenaflu

But see that second peak in the green line representing the 2012-2013 season? That could happen again this year, said Josh Gray, vice president of athenaResearch.

“I think the jury’s still out,” he said. “It’s still relatively early in the season.”

That subsequent uptick may be due to flu rates rising as kids head back to school, said Iyue Sung, director of the athenaResearch.

Athena provides this data to four public health departments in Ohio, and would be happy to do the same in Maine, they said. The company’s also in talks with CDC researchers and aiming to make their data more accessible to the public.

Outspoken CEO Jonathan Bush hasn’t been shy about touting the advantages of his company’s information on Twitter.

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The CDC also tracks people who visit outpatient clinics with influenza-like illness. Maine data isn’t available, but here’s a look at New England. As you can see, cases are on the upswing.

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Search terms

Google has gotten into flu tracking, measuring intensity of the illness based on search terms.

“We have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms,” Google explains on its Flu Trends website. “Of course, not every person who searches for ‘flu’ is actually sick, but a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together.”

Their algorithm rates Maine flu activity as “high,” though it’s beginning to subside.

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Google Flu Trends has been criticized for overstating the actual prevalence of the illness, but it has also made its way into a major scientific journal.

 

 

 

 

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.