Thirty-three North Carolinians have died during the current flu season as of Thursday, the Journal’s Richard Craver reported last week. All things considered, the number seems mercifully low — but its tragedy is heightened because of the likelihood that many if not all of those deaths could have been prevented had their victims received the flu vaccine.
It’s also all the sadder because while most of the victims were over age 65 — 21 of them — one was 15-year-old Lacie Rian Fisher, an athletic cheerleader and straight-A student from Canton, who died at the end of December.
When Fisher first began to feel badly, she and her family thought she was suffering from a garden-variety winter bug. But less than 72 hours after those first symptoms appeared, she lost consciousness and died.
The official cause of death was septic shock, but Influenza B was an underlying cause.
Her family generally received flu shots in the fall, but this year, the shots got lost in a shuffle of activities.
Every flu-related death is unexpected. We think we’re not at risk, but anyone can be susceptible.
In North Carolina, there were 208 flu-related deaths in the 2018-19 season and 391 deaths in 2017-18. Those numbers may not represent all flu-associated deaths in the state, because many go undiagnosed or unreported, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
We tend to associate colds, bugs and flu with cold weather, which hasn’t plagued us too much up until now. But influenza is not dependent on low temperatures, and can be transmitted from coughs or sneezes from up to six feet away. Symptoms include a fever of 100 degrees or higher (though not everyone with the flu has a fever); a cough and/or sore throat; a runny or stuffy nose; headaches and/or body aches; chills, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea. Even if it doesn’t kill, it can be debilitating and require hospitalization.
The elderly are especially vulnerable, as are children younger than 5, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Vaccine is recommended for those age 6 months and older.
This year’s flu strain is especially virulent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is the first time since 1992-1993 that influenza B has been identified more often than influenza A nationally, according to Dr. Christopher Ohl, infectious disease expert with Wake Forest Baptist Health. But that’s expected to shift, leading to even greater severity. “As we see the shift to influenza A, we expect the severity to increase, especially among older adults or those with underlying health problems,” Ohl said.
“Vaccination is still the best way to protect against the flu, so it is not too late to receive the influenza vaccine,” Ohl said.
The traditional flu season runs from Oct. 1 through March 31, though the flu has lingered well into April and May during some seasons. So thinking that the season is almost over is misleading.
It’s certainly not worth risking one’s life.
The flu shot can be accessed in doctor’s offices, health care clinics, county health departments, pharmacies and college health centers. The shots typically are free for individuals with private insurance and Medicare and Medicaid recipients.
The flu shot is well worth pursuing — and a lot less expensive than having the flu. To find a clinic nearby, go online to www.flu.nc.gov