The death of a healthy Cary High School senior last week from H1N1 flu is a reminder that the strain can still be lethal to young people, health officials said.
When the novel virus hit in 2009, college-age people seemed especially vulnerable. The age group is generally less inclined to get vaccinated or to seek treatment when sick.
"One of the reasons we see severe disease in young adults is it may be their body's reaction to the virus," said Dr. David Weber, an infectious disease specialist at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"It's not the virus itself - it's having a vigorous response, and some of the damage may be from their own immune system."
So far this year, four youngsters in North Carolina have died - fewer than the seven child deaths reported last year during the pandemic outbreak but twice as many than are reported in typical flu seasons. All told, the state has recorded 10 flu deaths this year, and not all from H1N1.
In the case of Katie Taylor, an 18-year-old from Cary who aspired to attend Meredith College next fall on her way to becoming a veterinarian, the virus damaged her heart.
Her father, Roy Taylor, said Katie seemed to suffer mild symptoms - a runny nose and coughing - for about two weeks, but then became dehydrated and developed achiness and pain. She went to WakeMed last Wednesday and was admitted. The next day, her condition worsened, and she was driven by ambulance to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
Katie died that night as doctors battled to stop oxygen deprivation caused by her failing heart.
"It was very fast," Roy Taylor said. "I want to make people aware that this is a very serious strain and they shouldn't take it lightly."
Taylor said he also wanted to urge people, especially young people, to get vaccinated against the virus, which still has not peaked in North Carolina.
State health officials said Tuesday the uptick in cases is likely to continue for another two or three weeks, hitting a high in early March.
"There is still time for vaccination," said Dr. Zack Moore, state public health epidemiologist, adding that a flu shot takes about two weeks for full protection to kick in. Flu shots are still available at many area pharmacies, plus for free at public health clinics.
"I don't make a lot of predictions, but I can promise you there will still be flu circulating two or three weeks from now," Moore said.
He said this year's flu shot is well-matched to the three strains of virus circulating most widely, but one of the complications this year is that all three strains are making the rounds. Last year, the pandemic H1N1 virus dominated, crowding out nearly all other strains.
Among the circulating viruses is a strain of influenza B, which usually causes less severe illness. This year, however, it's hitting hard.
Weber, at UNC Hospitals, said last year's reprieve from strains other than H1N1 may have diminished immunity to influenza B and others. He said UNC Hospitals runs its own laboratory analyses of influenza, catching more subtypes than the state lab, and is finding that about half of cases it's seeing are influenza B.
The hospital also reports that more than 12 percent of people seeking care in its emergency department are complaining of flu symptoms, including fever, cough and sore throat.
That's higher than the nearly 9 percent of emergency room visits with flu-like symptoms reported through the state's surveillance system.
"Even for people who have had the flu, or think they had flu, I'd still recommend getting the vaccine," said Moore, the state epidemiologist. "If they actually had flu, they had one strain of three circulating, so they could be infected with others."
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