With five recent flu-related deaths in Beaumont, two of which had confirmed cases of the H1N1 strain, and around 15 deaths reported in a 16-county region of Southeastern Texas, both local and state health agency officials are urging Texans to get vaccinated immediately.
“Pretty much all regions of the state are seeing elevated flu right now and so, we want to remind people that it’s an issue,” said Chris Van Deusen, press officer for the Department of State Health Services (DSHS). “It is flu season for sure, so if they haven’t already, people should take time to get a flu shot to help protect themselves and their families.”
Van Deusen said the primary strain doctors are seeing now is the H1N1, which emerged in 2009 and hit adults and school-age children especially hard. All Texas regions have reported laboratory-confirmed influenza. According to the DSHS website, more than 90 percent of positive influenza tests reported from Texas laboratories have been typed as influenza A, and of those influenza A viruses that have been subtyped, 90 percent have been the 2009 pandemic H1N1 subtype. This subtype of influenza is included in this season’s influenza vaccine.
“Flu is on the rise and causing severe illness in certain people. It is not unexpected this time of year, but it’s a good reminder for people to get vaccinated and stay home if they’re sick,” said Dr. David Lakey, DSHS commissioner.
It is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older and especially important for those who have regular contact with high-risk populations, DSHS warns. These populations includes pregnant women, people with chronic health problems, young children and the elderly.
According to vaccines.gov, it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza virus infection. In the meantime, you are still at risk for getting the flu.
Sherry Ulmer, public health director for the City of Beaumont, said that she wouldn’t consider the current flu outbreak a pandemic like 2009, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received reports of the deaths of 277 children with laboratory-confirmed H1N1 within the United States between April 26, 2009, and Feb. 13, 2010.
“People are panicking, and that’s unfortunate. This is not a pandemic,” Ulmer said. “This is not an unusual year. What’s unusual is that several people here have died. In 2009, we were in a situation where we had a new virus, which the population had no immunity to. Since 2009, the strain of H1N1 has been included in every flu shot. None of these people who died had the flu shot.”
“These people are not Beaumont residents,” Ulmer added, regarding the five flu-related deaths in Beaumont. “Most of them have come from different areas like Hardin County, Jasper County … I know one came from Bexar County (San Antonio). We’re still trying to find out about the last two. I think one was from Beaumont.”
Ulmer confirmed the ages of the two victims of H1N1 to be 56 years old and 65 years old.
“Two have been confirmed with lab reports,” Ulmer said. “Results are pending on (the third). On the last two, specimens were not sent because the lab in Austin was closed.”
Ulmer said that many people do not receive flu shots because they are concerned it will make them ill.
“Unless you are allergic to components in the flu shot, it is a dead virus and can’t make you sick,” Ulmer said.
If you think you have the flu, you should see your healthcare provider, Ulmer suggested.
“We encourage healthcare providers that if (patients) are experiencing influenza-like illnesses, to go ahead and start them on Tamiflu.”
In addition to getting a shot, Van Deusen says some basic hygiene can also help a person avoid getting the flu or spreading it to others.
“Remember to do those things your mother told you,” he points out. “Wash hands frequently with soap and water. Cover coughs and sneezes. And if you’re sick – this maybe the most important one – stay home.”
Influenza viruses can be spread by large respiratory droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes in close proximity to an uninfected person, the DSHS website states. Symptoms can include fever, dry cough, sore throat, headache, body aches, fatigue and nasal congestion. Among children, otitis media, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are common. Most people generally recover from illness in 1-2 weeks, but some people develop complications and may die from influenza. The highest rates of influenza infection occur among children; however, the risks for serious health problems, hospitalizations and deaths from influenza are higher among people 65 years of age or older, very young children, and people of any age who have medical conditions that place them at increased risk for complications from influenza.
“Everyone who is at least 6 months of age should get a flu vaccine this season,” the DSHS website suggests. “It is not too late for vaccination.”
The flu shot is available at the Beaumont Public Health Clinic, 950 Washington Blvd. in Beaumont, for $20, Ulmer said, and is also usually available at CVS, Walgreens and from your healthcare provider.
“For children, if they are on Medicaid, there is no charge out of pocket,” she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza kills nearly 25,000 Americans each year.
It was reported in a hearing by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs that the United States government has spent more than $2 billion to fight pandemic flu — $1.5 billion of which goes to Health and Human Services and Centers for Disease Control for federal stockpiles, vaccines and detections. Of the remaining funding, $350 million has gone toward state and local response, and $200 million for global efforts.
“Flu can be deadly. People who have not been vaccinated should do so now,” said Dr. Lakey. “It’s the best defense we have.”