by ASHLEY M. LATTA
Capital News Service
As October draws closer, so does the start of flu season.
This year, all signs point toward a manageable situation. Still, Maryland health officials are strongly encouraging everyone age 6-months and older to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
On Friday, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene kicked off its annual prevention campaign with a free flu clinic at the Baltimore County Health Department. By 10:30 a.m., 250 vaccines had been administered despite the pouring rain
The department has monitored global flu activity all year, anticipating what this year's flu season could bring to Marylanders.
And health officials like what they're seeing.
"We have connections through the CDC, the federal government, to monitor what kinds of flu viruses they are seeing," said Frances Phillips, deputy secretary of Public Health Services at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
There are two significant factors that have officials optimistic about the flu season this year. First, there have been no problems with flu vaccine production. In fact, the state health department expects there will be nearly 170 million doses of vaccines available across the country.
"There will be no shortage," said Phillips, who said that shortages have been a problem in the past.
Health officials are also enthusiastic about the quality of the vaccines being manufactured this year.
"Three strains that will be in this year's vaccine are a strong match to what is continuing to be reported in the southern hemisphere," Phillips said.
Officials said they have not seen a change in the severity of the flu so far, which is good news because flu activity in the southern hemisphere usually serves as a good indicator of what flu season will bring to the United States.
But Phillips said that since the flu is always changing, researchers in the state's public health labs will closely monitor flu specimens collected in Maryland in order to detect any resistance or changes that may occur.
Nearly 1,000 people in Maryland die each year as a result of the flu.
At a 50 percent vaccination rate, Maryland surpassed the national average for flu shots last year.
But Phillips said she is not content with that number.
"We're not going to get to 100 percent," she said. "But we are pushing to get that percentage up much higher."