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Flu cases dip for 2d week in Massachusetts

The flu appears to have peaked in Massachusetts, but federal health officials warn that people over age 65 remain particularly vulnerable to the virus.

The latest data released Friday show a sharp decline for the second week in a row in the number of Massachusetts patients showing up in doctors offices and community health centers with coughs, sore throats, and fever, according to the state Department of Public Health. The portion of visits for flu-like illnesses fell to 2.4 percent last week, barely half the percentage two weeks earlier.

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However plenty of people are still sick. The numbers show 1,991 patients tested positive for flu just last week — and that is likely a fraction of those suffering because most people do not bother to get a test to confirm their misery.

Nationally, the legions of flu-infected patients have also declined, but some areas are still seeing increases, particularly in the western part of the country, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s shaping up to be a worse than average season and particularly bad for the elderly,” Frieden said Friday at a briefing for reporters.

National numbers show a rapid rise last week in people over 65 hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed flu cases, Frieden said.

The hospitalization rate for those older than 65 is four times higher than the overall rate for people of all ages.

“We see each year . . . thousands of deaths from flu, and in a bad year tens of thousands of deaths,” Frieden said. “Usually 90 percent of those deaths are in people over 65.”

Frieden said prompt treatment with antiviral medications is critical to reduce the risk of death for those who are older than 65, young children, and patients with underlying health conditions such as asthma.

“We have seen death rates cut by 50 percent or more through prompt use of antivirals,” he said. “It’s most effective if given within 48 hours of onset of symptoms.”

Frieden said that many patients, perhaps as many as one-third to one-half of those who could benefit from this prompt treatment, are not receiving it.

He also said vaccination rates remain low among certain health care workers, which puts patients at risk of infection. In the nursing home industry, less than half of workers have been vaccinated, Frieden said.

State public health records show vaccination rates in Massachusetts nursing homes are higher, about 59 percent in the 2010-2011 flu season, the most recent data available.

More than 11,000 Massachusetts patients have tested positive for the flu already this season, the numbers show, and the hardest hit region has been northeast of Boston, which has reported more than 2,100 confirmed cases.

The numbers are still running significantly higher than a year ago, which was a mild season. At this point last year, there had been just 206 confirmed cases since the start of the flu season.

State health officials say the latest news is encouraging, but they note that flu can be unpredictable and it is too soon to know for sure whether the season has peaked in Massachusetts.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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