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Maine CDC Calls This Flu Season an Epidemic
01/11/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight
Dr. Imad Durra

The Maine Centers for Disease Control said the flu is now a statewide epidemic. But what does that designation mean? What is the impact of the epidemic on hospital emergency rooms? And what do doctors recommend to prevent the situation from getting worse?

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Sitting at his office computer at Central Maine Medical Center, Dr. Imad Durra pulls up a graph that charts the number of flu cases in Maine this season AS compared to last. The difference is stark, last season's line looks like a series of small foothills. This season's line starts the same way, then takes a dramatic turn straight up the chart.

"Yes, it was relatively steady and this year it is an exceptionally severe season and early season," Durra said.
Patty Wight: "Wow! It's like a flu cliff."

Dr. Durra is an infectious disease doctor, and he said it's difficult to know why the flu is so bad this year, but one likely reason is it's a different strain from previous years.

"So it is genetically different and less people have immunity to it, so this is at least part of the reason why this season is earlier and more severe than previous years," he said.

It's so severe at this point that Maine Center for Disease Control director Dr. Sheila Pinette said it's an epidemic.

"And what we mean by that is that it is found in every county of the state and it has quadrupled in numbers over the last two or three years that we've had flu identified in the state, and it's affecting all age groups," Pinette said.

"I think this is the most severe outbreak that we've ever seen, even going back ya know, beyond H1N1, to the past decade," said Joshua Frances, Director of Emergency Management at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

He said emergency rooms are reaching full capacity across the state. St. Mary's hospital in Lewiston reports 20 to 25 more patients per day in its emergency room. Officials at Central Maine Med said rooms with two beds have to be used as singles in order to isolate flu patients. The number of people coming to the ER with the flu has some doctors concerned about spreading the virus to other, weaker individuals.  Frances of Maine Med said patients should contact their primary care doctors as the first line of defense.

"Everything else continues to go on and happen during flu season, so there are plenty of other illnesses and accidents that happen that continue to add to our emergency department volume, in addition to the influenza patients," Frances said.

Beyond basic prevention such as washing hands frequently and coughing into your arm, doctors are saying it's not too late to minimize your chances of getting the flu in the first place.

"What I'm going to do is put this shot right into your muscle, okay?" said Medical assistant Jennifer Chase, who was preparing to deliver a flu vaccine to a patient at Concentra urgent care clinic in Lewiston.

"Ready? One, two, poke," she said. "You can consider yourself vaccinated for this flu season."

"And hopefully, if all goes well, you will never get the flu, but if you do get it, your symptoms will be less severe, okay?" she told her patient.

Maine Med's Frances said there are a lot of myths surrounding the flu vaccine, including the rumor that it can make you sick. He said that's not true, and healthy people should consider getting the vaccine as a way to protect their community.

"And that's really the strategy that we like to share, that this is not only about you, but it's about protecting others, your family, and the community to prevent the outbreak from growing bigger," Frances said.

Dr. Pinette from the CDC said there has been one pediatric flu death in the state, a 6-year old from Central Maine, as well as a few deaths of elderly patients who had confirmed cases.

Photo by Patty Wight.


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