Three out of four North Carolinians who have died of flu this year have been 65 or older, according to the most recent state public health statistics.
Older people are typically more prone to complications of the flu, but this year’s strain has been especially hard to fight. The H3 strain that’s in circulation was not around until the late ’60s, so many seniors weren’t exposed to it during their youths – the best time for building resistance, state epidemiologists say.
“It’s been a while since we’re had a year with H3,” said Nicole Lee, epidemiologist with the state Division of Public Health. “Your best immune responses are to viruses you were exposed to when you were younger. What’s circulating predominately is a virus that usually affects them more than other groups.”
The state’s designated flu season lasts from October to May. As of the most recent count, 23 of the 31 people who have died were 65 or older. In addition to the possibility of weaker response to this year’s strain, many older people are at greater risk because they are more likely to have pre-existing conditions that can worsen flu, Lee said.
“If you have asthma, that make it worse; it might exacerbate your conditions,” she said. “Cardiovascular disease, heart disease, diabetes – any of those would put you at higher risk of complications.”
Since last year, a higher-dose flu vaccine has been available for patients older than 65.
“Aging decreases the body’s ability to have a good immune response after getting influenza vaccine,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. “A higher dose of antigen in the vaccine is supposed to give older people a better immune response and therefore better protection against flu.”
Older people who would like to know about whether to take the higher-dose vaccine should consult their doctors, state public health officials said.
North Carolina has had no pediatric flu deaths to date, but there’s no way to rank the number of adult deaths, because states don’t have to report those to the CDC. Among adults, many cases have been contracted in the workplace.
“That’s been a huge story this year, people going to work sick,” public health spokeswoman Julie Henry said.
While alarming, the state numbers for older people are actually lower than the national rate — 90 percent rate of all flu deaths are among those older than 65. Hospitals are taking exceptional precautions to keep older patients from contracting the disease while being treated.
“It’s their younger family that is bringing them germs,” Henry said. “Don’t bring all those germs in to see Gram.”