With at least two flu-related deaths reported in North Carolina in the past several weeks, state officials are urging the public to get vaccinated before the flu season becomes serious.
They’re hoping to avoid a repeat of last flu season, when 391 people in North Carolina died, the most flu deaths since the state started tracking them in 2009.
Nationally, flu deaths also broke records, claiming more than 80,000 lives. The majority of those who died were over age 65, according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Wake County has already had one flu-related death, that of Wake County school board member Kathy Hartenstine, 68, who unexpectedly died last month. Hartenstine’s family said her death was caused by flu-related complications.
Another flu-related death, that of an older Buncombe County resident, was reported last month by that county’s medical director.
But health officials with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Service, which tracks flu deaths in the state, have yet to confirm any flu deaths. The agency, which didn’t begin counting flu deaths for the 2018-2019 flu season until Sept. 30, will issue its weekly report on statewide flu hospitalizations and deaths on Thursday, and will continue issuing the reports for the next eight months of flu season.
In North Carolina the flu season begins Oct. 1 and runs through May.
The best time to get vaccinated against the flu is by the end of October, before the flu starts spreading, because it takes about two weeks after the vaccination for your body to develop antibodies against the illness. But health officials stress that getting a shot any time during flu season is better than not getting one at all. Flu season typically peaks in January and February.
The CDC recommends flu vaccinations for everyone aged 6 months or older, and especially for people with health complications, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and obesity, who are more susceptible to health complications arising from a flu infection.
People have several vaccine options to consider. For those who don’t like needle injections into the muscle, the CDC is again recommending the nasal spray flu vaccine for people aged 2 years to 49 years. The CDC had not recommended the flu mist vaccine for several years because the data on its effectiveness was inconclusive, but reversed its position earlier this year. Unlike most flu vaccine, which is made from dead virus material that cannot lead to infection, the nasal mist is made from live flu virus that can cause an infection and is not recommended for people with certain medical conditions and sensitivities.
There are also two approved vaccinations administered without a needle. They use a high-pressure jet injector which penetrates the skin. Both are available for people aged 18 years through 64 years.
The CDC said that for the conventional shot, there is no “preferential recommendation” between cell-grown versus egg-grown vaccines, or between a vaccine that protects against three flu virus types and a vaccine that protects for four flu virus types.
It is impossible to predict the severity of a flu season, and it’s also not possible to reliably predict which strains of the flu will be circulating, according to the CDC.
Of North Carolina’s flu victims last year, 290 were age 65 and older, and seven were minors under the age 18. Of those who died, 42 percent were known to have been vaccinated, and 58 percent were either not vaccinated or had no documentation of flu vaccine, said to DHHS spokesman Cobey Culton.
One reason so many died is because the vaccines did not match the dominant flu strain and were only 40 percent effective. But in a good year, vaccines may only be 50 to 60 percent effective, according to the CDC.
Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University School of Medicine, said that despite the high numbers of flu-related deaths last year, it is reasonable to conclude that vaccinations saved many lives.
“I would argue that you probably saved more people in a busy [flu] season,” Wolfe said.
Doctors have long said that people who are vaccinated and get sick anyway have shorter and less severe bouts of the flu.
“We’re optimistic that this year the match will be better,” said David Priest, chief medical director for infection prevention at Novant Health, the 15-hospital network based in Winston-Salem. “Influenza is preventable and you should be vaccinated.”
In addition to getting vaccinated, people can take other precautions against the flu. Mostly commonly recommended is covering the mouth when sneezing and frequently washing the hands. The flu often spreads through contact, but the virus has to land on a mucus membrane, such as an eye, nose or mouth, to start replicating and to develop into an infection.