Spring officially begins Wednesday, but another season will continue: flu season. And according to federal data, the flu has not been this intense this late in the season, since 1999.
Fourteen Arkansans died of the flu last week, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. That brings the total number of flu deaths for the season to 77.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that hospital visits related to the flu are at their highest level for mid-March in 20 years.
Dr. Nikhil Meena, an associate professor and interventional pulmonologist at UAMS, said a change from the H1N1 strain of flu to H3N2 is to blame.
“Even for H1N1, it was not a bad season,” he recalled. “But the later half, and the second 10 weeks, we have changed to a H3N2, which is, not only is it a, comes later, it is more virulent, and it lasts longer.”
The yearly flu vaccine is designed for four of the most common strains of flu, as experts predict what people are most likely to encounter in the year to come. Some years, Meena explained, the virus mutates in small ways, which allow the vaccine to be more effective. But other years, it makes dramatic mutations, reducing the flu shot’s effectiveness.
“And we see all four of them circulating in Arkansas,” added Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, Medical Director for Immunizations for the Arkansas Department of Health. “What we don’t see in Arkansas Is high vaccination rates.”
Dillaha claimed that less than half of eligible Arkansans got the flu shot, and while roughly two-thirds of children received their flu shots, only a third of adults did the same.
“Now, the predominant virus that’s circulating is Influenza A H3N2, and that virus typically is much more harsh to adults who are 65 and older,” she said.
Last year was a much deadlier year for the flu, as 228 people died from the virus. Dillaha said H3N2 was the dominant strain, as well, in the 2017-18 flu season, though it peaked in early February.
“I was on all winter, from October to January, and hardly saw a couple of flu cases in the ICU,” Meena said of the current flu season. “But, this last week, I have seen at least three or four.
“But, majority of our patients have some kind of comorbidity, like they have COPD, asthma, diabetes. So, very rarely have I seen someone who’s just normal and has a flu that requires ICU.”
Flu is often associated with cold weather, and Meena acknowledged that some people assume flu season is over when spring approaches. Even if they have flu-like symptoms, he said, they often do not think to ask a doctor. Early detection of the flu makes it easier for patients to shorten or reduce their symptoms.
“Even if you go to a doctor and they check you out and you don’t have the flu,” Meena stated, “at least you know two things: you know you don’t have the flu, and you’re not going to give anybody else the flu. So, you can potentially still go about your business as you usually do.”
Both Meena and Dillaha said Tuesday that they believe flu activity could remain prevalent well into April.
“And I wished we had turned the corner,” Dillaha said. “We’re hopeful we have turned the corner, but it is way too soon to tell. And even though we have turned the corner at some point in the future, it will still take weeks for the flu to be gone.”
Meena and Dillaha both said it is not too late for someone who had not yet gotten a flu shot to get one.
“If you get the flu, it will be 100 times worse than if you get the shot,” Meena claimed. “It’s still not too late. People say our flu season is almost done: that is not true. You can still get the flu and not do well from it.”
Dillaha mentioned that it is too late to get the vaccine and feel protected during Spring Break, which is this week for most students in Arkansas; the vaccine takes two weeks to build up enough antibodies to fend off the virus.