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Flu Season Has Boston Declaring Health Emergency

BOSTON — Boston declared a public health emergency Wednesday as the city tries to deal with a harsh early flu season, and the state has reported 18 flu-related deaths so far.

Boston will offer free flu vaccines at community health centers this coming weekend.

“The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family is to get the flu shot,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said. “I’ve had my flu shot. I’m asking you to get yours, too.”

The mayor announced that the city has seen 700 confirmed cases of the flu in Boston so far this season, compared with 70 all of last season. In Boston, there have been four flu-related deaths, all elderly residents, since the unofficial start of the flu season on Oct. 1, 2012.

The city hasn’t seen this much flu since 2009, according to the Boston Public Health Commission’s executive director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer.

“So for us there is a lot of urgency to this,” Ferrer said. “We’d like there to be no more deaths. And one way to prevent further deaths from flu is to make sure that we do a better job getting the word out that people need to get vaccinated.”

Ferrer stressed the disease can have a devastating impact on infants under 6 months old, who cannot get immunized.

“The less immunizations that we have around people who are surrounding those babies, the greater chances that small infants who cannot get immunized will get ill with influenza,” Ferrer said. “So we’re urging people — whether you do it for yourself or you do it for people you love, this is the time to get immunized.”

Dr. Anita Barry, director of the health commission’s infectious disease bureau, said the current vaccine does usually work against Type A H3 influenza, the most prevalent strain the city is seeing this season.

“With the influenza vaccine, in some people it will totally prevent illness. In other people it will make the illness less severe,” Barry explained. “So people who were vaccinated but did get influenza most likely had an illness that was less severe than what they would have had they not been vaccinated.” (Our full Morning Edition interview with Barry is above.)

Menino also urged people to stay home from work or school if they are sick, adding that he’s concerned about the economic toll the illness is taking on hourly workers who don’t get paid when they have to stay home.

Health commission leaders report (PDF) that the inner-city neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan have been hardest hit by the flu, and they attribute that partly to those communities having a higher number of lower-wage workers with less paid sick time.

Massachusetts was one of 29 states reporting high levels of “influenza-like illness,” according to the most recent weekly flu advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The director of the state Bureau of Infectious Disease, Kevin Cranston, said overall this flu season will clearly be more severe than the past two seasons, which were relatively mild.

“The earliness of the flu activity this year and the early signals of severity gives folks renewed emphasis to seek out vaccine,” Cranston said.

Public health officials said the state has an ample supply of flu vaccine this year.

With additional reporting by The Associated Press

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