Health Care

Flu death toll hits season high in NC, including 6-year-old Cary girl

North Carolina had its worst week of the flu season last week, with 21 people – including a 6-year-old Cary girl – dying statewide from influenza.

The N.C. toll bears out the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s warning that flu cases are spiking early and hard this year.

From the beginning of the flu season Oct. 1 through last Saturday, 67 people in North Carolina have died. Emily Grace Muth, 6, of Cary, who died last week, is one of four childen in the state who have been flu victims this season. Another child died in Johnston County, which reported two flu deaths last week.

The rising number of flu deaths statewide is already more than reported in the entirety of the 2015-16 flu season, when 59 people died in North Carolina. If flu cases and deaths continue at this pace, this flu season could turn out worse than last flu season, when North Carolina reported 219 deaths.

The flu virus is an accomplished mutator capable of outsmarting medical guessers. This year’s flu vaccine is protecting only about one in three people who received the shot. In a good year, when public health experts more accurately predict which flu strains will be active, the flu vaccine would protect at least half the people who received the shot.

“What happens is that over a period of time ... these things become so antigenically different that people have no immunity to it,” said Dean Markham, an infectious disease specialist at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine.

Emily did not get her flu shot this year, according to news reports. The family was not available for comment to The News & Observer, but they shared details earlier this week about Emily’s death with ABC11.

Emily’s family reported that she had problems breathing, which is a common complication when the flu turns severe and dangerous. Up to half of children who die from the flu have no known medical condition that puts them at higher risk.

Young and old

According to the CDC, those who are most vulnerable to flu complications are the very old and the very young. Every year, about 100 kids die from the flu nationwide, said Ravi Jhaveri, a professor of pediatrics at UNC Medical School

The most numerous flu deaths strike the elderly, and most of the flu deaths in North Carolina this year have been among those ages 65 and older. Last week Wake County reported two flu deaths; Durham County did not provide information.

Flu complications can include pneumonia, bronchitis and sinus infections, as well as exacerbations of asthma and congestive heart disease. Pneumonia happens when fluids accumulate in the lungs and interfere with the patient’s ability to breathe. If severe enough, pneumonia can lead to death.

Flu can also make a patient vulnerable to bacterial infections, Jhaveri said. And in some patients, the flu can trigger the immune system to go haywire and flood air passages with fluids, Jhaveri said.

People who have other conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, are also susceptible to complications that result when the body is fighting against viral invaders. In Orange County, an adult female who died of the flu last week had been vaccinated but also had several other chronic conditions, said spokeswoman Kristin Prelipp.

Vaccinations recommended

Medical experts urge the public to still get vaccinated, if they haven’t already. Even though vaccinations are never 100 percent effective, they reduce the risk of the flu spreading. Some people can carry the infection without showing symptoms, so they don’t know they are transmitting the virus.

The CDC urges flu vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older with rare exceptions. The agency recommends injections over nasal sprays, which the CDC has not recommended for the past two years because of lower effectiveness.

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski