Flu deaths spike in North Carolina

jprice@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2014 

VACCINATE2-NE-112713-HLL

Public health officials stress the importance of vaccinations to protect the health of people with compromised immune systems. Duke pulmonology patient Lee Welch of Raleigh, NC, gets a flu shot from Duke RN Anita Gregory in the Duke Pulmonology clinic at Duke Hospital South Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Eleven people died of flu-related illness in North Carolina last week, almost double the toll of any previous week since flu season began in November, state public health officials said Thursday.

The number of flu deaths in the state had fluctuated between five and six in each of the previous four weeks. At least 44 people have now died from flu-related illness in the state this season.

Despite the spike in deaths, the two main public health surveillance systems in the state show dips in the number of new cases of flu-like illnesses showing up at health care providers, said Zack Moore, a medical epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Typically, a peak in deaths lags the peak in flu activity because the deaths are usually the result of complications and come days after the patients first begin suffering symptoms.

That could mean the flu season has stopped worsening, Moore said

“I’m increasingly hopeful that we’ve started to level off or decrease, but you never know,” he said. “Often you get a late season bump, maybe with a different strain dominating.”

This year, the most common strain has been H1N1, which tends to affect young and middle-age adults more often than it does children or the elderly.

One flu victim last week was the second child to die this season. But three-quarters of the 44 people were between the ages of 18 and 64.

Most had pre-existing conditions that made them somewhat more vulnerable, but typically the condition was relatively common, such as diabetes, asthma or obesity, rather than something that had severely weakened the patient.

“These were not people, by and large, who we’d have expected to have died from the flu,” Moore said.

The number of flu deaths can vary widely from year to year in North Carolina. The state counted 59 deaths during last year’s flu season, compared with only nine the year before.

Even if this flu season is peaking, it could go on for weeks, and public health officials still urge those who haven’t gotten vaccinated yet to do so. The vaccine is considered by far the best protection against contracting the flu, and the formulation this year is effective against the H1N1 strain.

The vaccine can be given to anyone 6 months old or older. It takes at least two weeks to build up a full immunity against the virus, but partial immunity begins more quickly.

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