By Linda Lipp
Influenza is believed to have caused eight deaths in Allen County this flu season — a reminder that even in a relatively mild run, in terms of the number of people affected, the flu virus still can prove deadly.
The dominant strain being found this year, influenza A/H3, “really tends to knock the socks off people when they get it,” said Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County’s health commissioner.
“This was a bit of a fooler. It occurred later and people got sicker,” she said.
The county is still working to confirm the flu deaths, but the number is higher than usual, she added.
The state starts the clock on the flu season each year at the beginning of October, the 40th week of the year. Since then, through the week that ended March 18, the flu has caused 49 deaths, according to the Indiana Department of Health. In the same period of the previous year, there were 34 flu-related deaths.
“That we have more this year than last year isn’t out of the ordinary, because two years ago (at the same point) we had 138 deaths,” said Sara Hallyburton, a state respiratory epidemiologist. “The year before that it was 61, and the year before that, it was 65.”
The rate of infection is generally highest in the categories that cover toddlers and young people under 24 years of age. But people aged 65 or older account for most of the deaths.
“I think that’s always true, although we did see some middle-aged people succumb. The H3 strains tend to be difficult even on middle-aged people,” McMahan said.
The state does not report the number of flu deaths in a county unless it reaches five or more. This season, only Allen, Marion and Elkhart counties had numbers that high.
Indiana also tracks the rate of infection by 10 regional districts. Most of northeast Indiana is in District 3, which currently has the lowest rate in the state.
Data compiled by Lutheran Hospital shows that the number of cases seen in its emergency rooms peaked in the first part of February. But McMahan said doctors saw another spike in cases in March.
Fort Wayne Community Schools saw more student absences at many schools during what is considered the peak season, but fewer visits to the school nurses’ offices.
“What that might say is that fewer students were ill but, when they did get sick, they were sicker for a longer period of time,” said spokeswoman Krista Stockman.
That is in line with what Dr. Julie Stark, who works in Lutheran Health’s Redimed clinics, has been seeing. The flu starts with things like body aches and a sore throat, and progresses to a prolonged fever.
“The fever this year is lasting a good five days,” she said.
What also has overshadowed the flu this year, in places like schools and nursing homes, is a gastrointestinal bug known as the norovirus, McMahan noted.
“Every once in a while, there’s a shift. It comes into the community and really wreaks havoc, and this was one of those years,” McMahan said.
Early indications were that the flu vaccine available has been a pretty good match for the strains of flu making the rounds this year, McMahan said.
Stark agreed. A quick, 10-minute test can determine the presence of flu, and those testing positive at the beginning of the season were people who had not been vaccinated, she said.
Flu vaccines are readily available now at pharmacies, and that has made it easier for more people to get vaccinated.
“The more accessible we make these vaccines, the more likely people are to do them, which is the whole point,” McMahan said.