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Prevention essential as flu reaches the Valley

FORT KENT, Maine — Although influenza, or “the flu,” is sometimes fatal to the old, young or already ailing populace, this year’s strain of the virus has proven to be more lethal than in recent years.

That’s all the more reason for residents of the St. John Valley to take preventative measures to avoid the illness, according to Tina Soucy, infection preventionist at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent.

“It’s a bad one this year,” Soucy said Monday. “The strain that’s out there changes often, and it’s making people really, really sick.”

According to Soucy, as of Monday, five people, including four adults between the ages of 37 and 85, and one child, had tested positive for influenza at NMMC. Two of the adults diagnosed with the illness were admitted to the hospital.

In a letter dated Friday, Feb. 9, Fort Kent Elementary School Principal Gary Stevens notified parents that there had been “three documented cases of influenza” at the school. The letter did not specify whether the cases were among students and/or school employees.

Fort Kent Community High School Principal John Kaleta said in an email on Monday that there have been no confirmed cases of influenza among students at the high-school or Valley Rivers Middle School, which are in the same building.

So far, there have been no influenza related deaths of adults or children recorded at NMMC, according to Soucy.

The latest flu data in Maine, however, show that it has so far caused 34 deaths, 667 hospitalizations and outbreaks in 77 nursing homes, schools and other institutions this season. That’s considerably more serious than the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, one of the worst flu seasons in recent memory. During that outbreak, 21 adults died from the illness and about 250 Mainers were hospitalized.

Nationally, the 2017-2018 influenza season is now being called the worst since that H1N1Â pandemic.

Soucy stressed Monday that preventive methods are crucial to keeping the number of local flu cases to a minimum.

Soucy said she recommends “good hand hygiene” to help prevent the spread of flu. Along with frequent handwashing, which she said cannot be stressed enough, people should also take care not to touch the “T-zone” area of their faces. The T-zone refers to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth.

The flu virus also is transmitted when droplets of an infected person become airborne for up to three feet through coughing or sneezing. Therefore healthy persons should avoid coming into close proximity with those who have the virus, and those who are infected with influenza should cover their coughs and sneezes.

Soucy also recommended another method of flu prevention.

“There is still plenty of time for people to get the flu shot,” she said. “It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to become effective.”

Flu season lasts from October to May, but typically peaks in the St. John Valley in March, which is somewhat later than other areas of the country, according to Soucy. She said this is due in part to the fact that when people living in the St. John Valley travel this time of year, they sometimes bring the virus back home with them.

Although not 100 percent effective in preventing influenza, the flu shot can lessen the severity of the illness in those who contract it.

“Nothing is one hundred percent effective, we know that,” Soucy said. “But it is better than no protection at all.”

The two adults hospitalized at NMMC with influenza had not received the vaccine, according to Soucy.

In Fort Kent, flu shots are available at Rite Aid Pharmacy, St. John Valley Pharmacy, and at NMMC and the Fish River Rural Health clinic.

Those who suspect they might have contracted influenza should seek medical consultation to be tested for the illness and seek possible treatment, Soucy said.

“Especially this year,” she said. “Some young people have passed away in the nation because it gets so severe…..”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the U.S. as of Feb. 3, “a total of 63 influenza-associated pediatric deaths have been reported for the 2017-2018 season.”

Antiviral drugs, such as “Tamiflu,” if given within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, usually decreases the symptoms of the illness, according to the CDC. The medication is less effective, but still has the potential to reduce flu symptoms after the 48 hour time period.

However, Soucy pointed out that antiviral drugs do not prevent the flu.

Symptoms of flu are often similar to those of a basic cold, and can include high fevers, chills, general malaise, fatigue, headaches, stuffy/runny nose, sneezing, dry cough or sore throat. However, in cases of influenza, the symptoms are often more severe, Soucy said.

“A person is infectious a whole 24 hours before (symptoms present),” Soucy added, and can infect others for up to seven days after the arrival of symptoms.

For more information about influenza, Soucy recommends people seek reputable information  such as the Centers for Disease Control website.

“There are a lot of myths out there about flu shots and about the flu…..,” she said.  

The CDC also publishes online a “Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report.”

Meg Haskell of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.

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