- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

After a slow start, flu activity in the United States has increased steadily since mid-December and already is rampant in Maryland, health officials reported yesterday.

“The flu is widespread” throughout most of the state, “and we’re just now entering the peak of the flu season,” said Greg Reed, program manager for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Center for Immunization. “So we’re encouraging people who haven’t been vaccinated, [and] who are most at risk, to get flu shots.”

At this time in Maryland, inoculations are restricted to high-risk people such as pregnant women, those ages 50 and older, and those with chronic diseases. Previously, shots were available to persons 65 and older.

Mr. Reed said the state met federal criteria for having widespread influenza activity at the end of last week after increased influenzalike illness was reported in four out of five regions of the state. Only Southern Maryland hasn’t seen an increase in flu cases. To date, 134 confirmed cases of the flu have been reported by surveillance sites statewide, he said. “And that’s not all the cases.”

Maryland’s figure sharply contrasts with the low numbers of confirmed influenza cases reported in neighboring Virginia (three) and the District (nine). Mr. Reed said he was surprised by the disparity, but can’t explain why Maryland’s figures are so much higher.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Llelwyn Grant said: “Some years, a state and its neighbors will report very similar flu activity. In other years, it may vary dramatically.”

Data released today in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) don’t designate Maryland as having widespread flu activity during its Oct. 3 through Jan. 1 examination period. The CDC, however, changed that status on Saturday.

Virginia is identified by the CDC has having “regional activity,” while the District is categorized as having “local activity.”

“We’re looking at a very mild flu season so far,” said Leila Abrar, spokeswoman for the D.C. health department. But she cautioned that could change because the flu season typically peaks in late January or early February.

Jimeequa Williams of the Virginia Department of Health, agreed, saying, “We’ll see peak activity in the next month or so.”

Officials from local health departments said flu cases were much worse at this time last year because the 2003-04 flu season started and peaked earlier. At that time, Maryland had more than 1,200 confirmed influenza cases. “Last year, we had widespread activity starting in December,” Mr. Reed said.

Asked why things are slower this year, Ms. Williams said the “pretty mild weather may have had some impact on the spread of the flu.”

Influenza typically kills 36,000 Americans in an average year. Today’s MMWR report says that, during the survey week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1, 6.7 percent of recorded deaths in the 122 cities monitored by the CDC were attributed to pneumonia and influenza. The finding is “below the epidemic threshold of 7.9 percent for that week,” according to the report.

Meanwhile, the CDC reports that the federal government has purchased 1.2 million doses of flu vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline for use in areas with continued vaccine shortages. Because the vaccine has not yet been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it will be administered in the United States under an FDA-sponsored investigational protocol, according to the CDC. The vaccine has been used globally.

District officials announced last week an expanded priority list for flu vaccine that followed CDC recommendations in the wake of news about the availability of the additional doses. Previously, vaccines were reserved for those 65 and older, but now adults ages 50 to 64 qualify.

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