Unusual flu season coming to a close

by Miriah Hamrick
Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Local experts say the 2013-14 flu season has been remarkable, but not because of a slight bump in flu-related fatalities.

The N.C. Division of Public Health reported the flu has contributed to the death of 86 individuals across the state for the 2013–14 season. 

The number is high compared to previous years, with 59 flu-related deaths reported for the 2012-13 season.

“It wasn’t what I would call an abnormally severe flu season,” said Zack Moore, epidemiologist at the N.C. Division of Public Health during a March 17 phone interview.

“The remarkable thing for this season was that the age groups affected were younger than we usually see, with more severe illness in younger and middle-aged adults,” Moore said. 

Moore said this was a result of the predominant strain in this year’s flu season: H1N1, also known as swine flu, that emerged in 2009 during a summer pandemic. 

The strain still infected people in subsequent years, but this season is the first time it has been the predominant strain since 2009.

“We think that’s why we’ve seen the same pattern, compared to last year when there was a different flu strain going around,” Moore said.

Out of the 86 deaths reported for this season, 62 of the victims were ages 25 to 64. 

Individuals with heart disease or respiratory problems like asthma are more likely to develop potentially fatal complications from the flu.

The peak of the season stretched from mid-January to early February. Reported positive tests have declined since the beginning of March.

Joshua Swift, deputy health director at the New Hanover County Health Department, corroborated Moore’s report. He reported only one flu-related death in New Hanover County, which happened early in the season. 

“We’re still tracking it, but traditionally it continues through March. We still encourage what we always do: wash hands, cover coughs and sneezes, stay away from others when sick and get your flu shot every season,” Swift said during a March 17 phone interview.

Moore added although reported infections have been dropping, a late spike in influenza B infections sometimes occurs in spring.

“It’s hard to make generalizations about A and B strains, but B tends to cause more severe illness in younger children,” Moore said.

H1N1 is an A strain.

Both Swift and Moore were hesitant to say whether unusually severe winter weather could have an impact on flu cases. 

“We do know that influenza survives better outside the body if the air is dry, like it usually is during a cold winter,” Moore said. 

He also said people typically spend more time indoors, in close proximity to one another, during cold winter months. 

The CDC reported the vaccine is recommended as long as the flu is still circulating. Positive flu test results are still trickling in. 

Moore said if people are vaccinated now, they will have to be revaccinated in September. 

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