Influenza season is in full force all across the country, but so far Texas seems to be the hardest hit. The influenza strain H1N1 has already left six dead and at least 14 in critical condition in the greater Houston area alone. Influenza is also suspected in a number of other deaths in the region.
The state of Texas Public Health Association has issued a plea for everyone over the age of six months to get the influenza vaccine as soon as possible along with an influenza health alert. The vaccine can take at least two weeks to become fully effective so officials are hoping for swift action to prevent the epidemic from getting worse. This year’s influenza vaccine protects against H1N1 in addition to other strains of influenza.
Texas officials also urged anyone experiencing flu-like symptoms to get to a doctor for treatment within 48 hours of symptom development, but to otherwise stay home to avoid exposing others to the potentially deadly virus.
Medical professionals have been encouraged to begin anti-viral treatment for influenza even if a negative result is initially seen on a rapid-flu test, as such a result does not necessarily exclude influenza as a cause of illness. Early anti-viral intervention is seen as particularly important for those who are hospitalized or who have an increased risk of complications due to age, pregnancy or underlying medical conditions.
Frequent incidences of influenza have also been reported in the nearby states of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississipi, though it is Texas, with six dead, that is seeing the influenza season in full force. Texas neighbor Oklahoma reports only a moderate outbreak of influenza at this time. Thirty-seven states report minimal levels of influenza type illnesses to date, with some others reporting only sporadic or localized influenza activity.
Influenza season runs from October until May, usually peaking in intensity during the months of January and February, which could be bad news for states like Texas that are already seeing a high number of serious cases. Texas isn’t alone though. Numbers gathered nationwide for the week of Dec. 8-14 show that influenza levels are just barely below the threshold to be deemed epidemic.
The influenza virus causes respiratory illness by infecting the nose, throat and lungs of those with whom it comes into contact. It is most commonly spread by droplets made when people who already have the virus cough, sneeze or talk. Influenca takes an average of 23,600 American lives each year according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Its impact is often overlooked, but that is a mistake according to health experts who urge people to remember that “flu is deadly” and can cause very serious illness.
The H1N1 influenza strain has been confirmed as the one to blame for all six Texas deaths so far this season and is known to be particularly dangerous. In 2009 H1N1 was first recognized and was the strain responsible for the “swine flu”pandemic that year. Flu deaths that year were 15 times higher than predicted worldwide, with those in lesser developed countries suffering the most.
By Michele Wessel