FARMINGTON — New Mexico is among the states that encounters a high level of flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cases of the flu are on the rise throughout the state, with the northwest region seeing a 0.8 percent increase in people reporting flu-like symptoms since last week, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.
While there has been only one reported death in the state from the flu this year, health officials are urging people to protect themselves.
"It's not too late to get vaccinated," said Kenny Vigil, spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health.
Vigil explained the department takes weekly reports from 29 health providers around the state. Although not every flu case is tracked, the weekly reports give the department a good overall view of state-wide trends in flu transmission.
"Flu activity is definitely increasing throughout the state, and the northwest region is no exception," Vigil said.
Flu, a respiratory viral infection, can be differentiated from the common cold by the severity of the symptoms and the duration of the illness. While both lead to congestion, sore throat, coughing and sneezing, the flu usually involves a higher fever that lasts several days, as well as body aches, fatigue, weakness and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea.
Flu symptoms also tend to appear more abruptly. Rather than just feeling bad, sufferers often find it difficult to get out of bed.
Vigil said most of this year's flu cases can be blamed on the H1N1 virus. He said the severity of symptoms -- as well as the fact that younger people are being infected at a higher rater than usual -- is similar to what occurred during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.
This year's flu vaccine protects against this strain of H1N1, as well as several other flu strains that are circulating.
Although some people who get the vaccine will still contract the flu, Vigil said most will experience less severe symptoms and will recover more quickly.
Vigil said it's recommended that all individuals six months and older get vaccinated. Adopting good hygiene practices, such as washing hands regularly and coughing or sneezing into a sleeve instead of the hands, are also recommended as strategies to avoid contracting the flu, Vigil said.
Farmington resident Marcel Pocowatchit, 25, was diagnosed with the flu in early January and said he has only recently begun to recover.
"I've had it since New Year's Eve," he said. "I've had the flu before, but I've never had it be this potent. I'm just really glad that I'm finally coming out of it."
Pocowatchit, who works at a local auto parts store, described suffering from severe all-over muscle aches, as well as headaches, fever, chills and sore throat. He was bed-bound and missed a week of work.
"I'm just starting to feel better," he said. "I might consider getting a flu shot next year, but more importantly, since I deal with customers, I'm going to make sure I always wash my hands and cover my cough."
While reports show flu cases are increasing, San Juan Regional Medical Center's Infection Control Preventionist Bonnie Adams said that flu numbers in the county are so far much lower than the hospital experienced at this time in 2013.
"Last year at this time, we had seen about 6,000 people with flu-like symptoms, but this year we've only seen 3,200," Adams said. "But that's not a good way to judge, because different flu strains peak at different times, and those numbers can change very quickly."
Most of those seen at the hospital for flu-like symptoms have tested positive for the H1N1 strain, Adams said.
"We greatly encourage people to get the flu vaccine, and the sooner the better, as it takes about two weeks to build up the immunity," she said. "The more people that get vaccinated, the less problems we'll have."
Another local health care provider, Reliance Medical Group, also reports that while many patients have been coming in with flu-like symptoms, very few of them have tested positive for the flu.
"Most are testing negative. There's some other virus out there that has the same symptoms that's hitting people pretty good, but it doesn't last as long," said Jim Holgate, business manager for Reliance. "But we have had an increase in the number of people coming in to get the flu shot, now that they're hearing the news that the flu is out there."MORE INFORMATION
Flu shots can be obtained by visiting private practitioners, as well as various local clinics and pharmacies.
The San Juan Public Health Office is offering free vaccinations for adults on Friday and on Jan. 31, by appointment only.
Children's vaccines are offered on Wednesdays. Call 505-327-4461 to make an appointment, If you have insurance, bring cards with you.
For more information about influenza, visit the New Mexico Department of Health'a website at NM.health.org/flu.