Melissa Ortega of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, prepares to give a flu shot to Arnold Vigil, a legislative staff member, in January in a mobile health care van outside the Capitol.

Season’s greetings — from the flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported it is seeing “elevated levels of flu-like illness” across the country — with infection rates in New Mexico even higher than the nation’s average.

Michael Landen, epidemiologist for the state Department of Health, said this year’s influenza season has an earlier start than usual, and the most common strain differs from those of the last few years: An influenza B strain is the main virus at the outset rather than the highly adaptable influenza A.

“Virus B can be milder. It’s more likely to affect kids and [is] a more stable virus,” Landen said, adding “stable” means less likely to mutate.

“Because the B strain doesn’t change as much as influenza A, we’re more likely to have a really good match with the influenza vaccine,” Landen said.

Now is still a good time to get a vaccine, which often does not require an insurance copay, he added. For adults and children who have Medicaid coverage or are uninsured, public health clinics offer flu vaccines while supplies last.

Patients with private insurance can check the HealthMap vaccine finder on the Health Department’s website for options.

New Mexico is seeing influenza-like activity at a higher rate than the rest of the U.S. and also has seen higher rates of hospitalization for children up to 4 years old.

New Mexico surveils seven counties that have more than half the reported hospitalizations for flu cases and have seen 70 hospitalizations so far, Landen said. The state’s youngest children and oldest residents are hospitalized in the highest numbers.

The department tracks cases of flu-related death and also pneumonia during the flu season, Landen said, because the second infection can do more damage to a weak immune system.

The Health Department has documented three flu deaths and 27 pneumonia deaths in three counties this season: Bernalillo, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe. The people who died were between 52 and 100 years old. Landen said there have been no confirmed flu-caused deaths for children.

The CDC has reported 10 child deaths nationally.

Landen urged people to get the vaccine. “It decreases the chance of getting influenza by 50 percent on average,” Landen said. “I just can’t overemphasize the importance getting a vaccine, for the individual and those around them — their family, their friends and others.

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