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Infectious Disease

Early Flu Deaths Portend Active Flu Season

By Rose Hoban

Three North Carolina adults died last week from complications of influenza, state officials confirmed Tuesday, among the first confirmed deaths early in a flu season that’s been quiet thus far.

“These people all had underlying conditions,” said Julie Henry, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, who acknowledged that deaths this early in the season are somewhat unusual.

Annual ILI trends from the Influenza-Like Illness Network (ILINet) for 2009 – 2014.

Annual trends from the Influenza-Like Illness Network (ILINet) for 2009 – 2014. Graph courtesy NC DHHS.

“We see that every year,” she said, “that the old, the very young and people who have health conditions that compromise their health need to be aware and get immediate attention when they develop flu-like symptoms.”

The three adults, all middle-aged, came from different regions of the state: the Charlotte area, the Triad and eastern North Carolina. Henry pointed out that this indicates flu activity is not limited to one part of the state.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Southeast has had the most active flu season thus far this year, but most of the cases have been in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Flu season typically peaks in January and February, so reports of flu thus far have been low. According to the state’s Influenza-Like Illness Network, a surveillance system connected to every emergency department in North Carolina, only about 3.5 percent of cases in emergency rooms have been for people with flu-like complaints.

During the peak of last year’s flu season, which occurred in late December to early January, 9 percent of people walking into ERs and doctors’ offices were complaining of flu-like symptoms.

Image of the newly identified H1N1 influenza virus, taken in the CDC Influenza Laboratory.

Image of the H1N1 influenza virus, taken in the CDC Influenza Laboratory. Image source: CDC Influenza Laboratory

Only one other person this season has had a death related to flu.

Henry said the best way to prevent the spread of flu was for people to get the flu shot.

“Vaccination is the most effective prevention against flu that we have. But, amazingly, there are people you meet every day who say, ‘I never get a flu shot,'” said Henry, who was initially hired to help DHHS respond to the H1N1 epidemic in 2009. “If you’re out in school or at work, or traveling for the holidays, chances are you’ll encounter someone who has the flu and who doesn’t know it.”

Cold weather adds to the possibility that people can be exposed to the flu, in that people spend more time indoors, often close to other people.

For people who do come down with flu-like symptoms, antiviral medications can reduce the severity of symptoms, wrote state health director Robin Cummings, in a statement from DHHS.

“Early treatment with an antiviral drug can mean the difference between a mild illness and a very serious illness,” Cummings wrote.

Cummings recommended that people take the following precautions against spreading flu:

  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and then discard the tissue promptly.
  • Wash hands frequently, preferably with soap and water, or use a hand sanitizer that’s been shown to kill viruses.
  • Stay home when you are sick until you are fever-free for at least 24 hours.

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