Health Dept. declares flu epidemic, calls for vaccination
By The Star Staff
For the first time since 2017, the island government on Thursday declared an influenza epidemic after a sustained increase in the number of cases and fatalities.
Health Secretary Carlos Mellado López, chief epidemiologist Melissa Marzán and chief medical officer Iris Cardona announced this week that the number of flu-related fatalities had risen to 42. As of Thursday morning there were 903 hospitalizations and 25,900 reported cases in the influenza season, which began in July.
“This epidemic declaration is to alert and inform citizens about the actions we must take. This is not the time to be alarmed, but to prepare to help prevent the increase in the spread of this virus,” Mellado López said. “Health providers are already working with measures to reduce the spread and prevent the virus. Fortunately, we have enough detection tests, vaccines and treatments required to deal with influenza cases and they are all accessible and distributed throughout the island.”
The Health chief added that there are guidelines for concrete actions to confront the spread of this virus.
The pediatric population between 0 and 19 years old has been the most affected this season, with 13,666 cases reported. Adults ages 20-59 with influenza amounts to 9,656 reported cases, while 2,578 cases were recorded among older adults. The sustained increase in influenza cases has occurred for 12 consecutive weeks.
Last year’s season (2022-2023) closed with 31,710 cases of influenza, 1,224 hospitalizations and 15 fatalities. According to the historical summary of influenza seasons, 2016 was the year in which the most cases were recorded, at 53,708. However, in 2015, 25 fatalities were recorded, while in 2018, some 2,407 hospitalizations were recorded, the highest number of reported hospitalizations.
“The current influenza season began above the alert threshold early and has recently shown epidemic behavior with 5.7 times more cases compared to last season at this time,” Marzán said.
The epidemic declaration is based on a methodology that occurs when the reporting of cases exceeds the alert threshold for at least four consecutive weeks and represents close to 50% of the total cases recorded for the current flu season. In addition, cases must be identified in all health regions of Puerto Rico, and there must be an incidence level higher than 100 cases per 100,000 people, or the monitoring system of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reach a red status, Marzán said.
Cardona stressed that “the call is simple: get vaccinated.”
“Vaccination is the main shield against some diseases; everyone over six months of age is eligible for it,” she said. “It is available around the island at vaccination providers, community and chain pharmacies, and at vaccination activities organized in shopping centers. We are also vaccinating in schools.”
Along with the respiratory disease prevention measures that citizens have practiced over the past three years, the vaccine will help stop the influenza virus, the officials said. Citizens must wash their hands, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and stay home if infected.
“If you have fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, tiredness, vomiting or diarrhea, it could be influenza,” Cardona said. “Get tested, and if it is positive, seek to be evaluated by a doctor.”
The Health Department aims to vaccinate as many people as possible before Christmas.
“We already have the experience of how to combat the disease,” Mellado López said. “We know that influenza has a period where transmission is usually high. If we do our part, get vaccinated, and protect ourselves, we will stop the disease.”
Vaccination events are scheduled at the following shopping centers: Plaza las Américas (Nov. 24, 25 and 26), San Patricio Plaza and Plaza del Caribe (Nov. 17 and 18), Laguna Gardens Shopping Center (Nov. 17) and Mayagüez Mall, and The Outlets at Montehiedra and Las Catalinas Mall (Nov. 18). Influenza vaccines are free of cost.