Season’s dominant flu strain especially harmful to young people
PHOENIX – When Jamie Ison got a fever in early January, he didn’t expect that he’d end up in intensive care. But within three days, he was diagnosed with H1N1, and his body was failing fast.
“It was scary to see how fast he was crashing to the ground,” said Krissy Ison, Jamie’s wife. “We didn’t know if he was going to make it.”
Jamie, 27, works as a personal trainer, exercises daily and hadn’t been to the doctor in years.
“I tried to be as healthy as I can,” said Jamie, who remains short of breath and is recovering from vocal cord damage.
But people like Jamie are being hit harder by this year’s flu season, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those ages 18 to 64 accounted for 61 percent of all influenza-related hospitalizations, compared with an average of 35 percent in previous years.
Here in Arizona, the trend is similar: 52 percent of flu cases were patients ages 19 to 64, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services’ latest influenza report. In the past two years, those figures were 37 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
The dominant strain this year both nationally and in Arizona is H1N1, notable for a pandemic flu that also hit young people hard in 2009. During that year, 56 percent of flu patients were ages 18 to 64 – still less than this year.
“The best reason for that is because the people in that age category are the least likely to be vaccinated,” said Jessica Rigler, bureau chief for epidemiology at the state Department of Health Services. “You’re going to see more illness and severity in groups that aren’t vaccinated.”
Dr. Robert Raschke, an internal medicine and critical care specialist at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, said that while H1N1 cases overall haven’t been extraordinarily high those among young people and the number of people on life support is alarming.
“It used to be the case that people who died from the flu were elderly,” Raschke said. “But it’s been different since 2009. All the people we’ve had on life support have been in their 20s, 30s and 40s. We’ve had totally healthy people who needed as much life support as we could give in order to survive, and none of the cases we had had been vaccinated.”
It could be that older people have slight immunity to this flu strain because there was a similar flu pandemic in the 1970s, he said.
“Why we’re seeing such bad severity is not that clear,” Raschke said. “One reason may be that in 2009 people were really aware of getting vaccinated. This year people were just laid back about it.”
The CDC also recognized the low levels of vaccination among those 18 to 64. Only one-third of people in that age group had been vaccinated by November, according to CDC officials.
In Arizona, the flu vaccination rate is 34.9 percent, according to Richard Hamburg of Trust for America’s Health, a nonprofit dedicated to disease prevention.
“It’s a huge economic cost besides the human toll,” Hamburg said.
Jennifer Tinney, program director for The Arizona Partnership for Immunization (TAPI), said she’s tried every way she can think of to get the word out here about the importance of flu vaccines.
“It’s the young invincibles,” she said. “If you talk to a 20-year-old, they just don’t think they’re ever going to get sick … Or a lot of times parents are so busy working and taking care of kids that their health gets put on the back burner. But their health impacts the entire family as well.”
Raschke said people may also be wary of getting vaccinated because of misconceptions from media reports and past experiences.
“Some people think the vaccine causes the flu, which it cannot do,” he said. “There are people who got vaccinated then got a cold or the flu from another person. They’ll remember that for the rest of their life and never take the flu shot again. But it’s impossible for the vaccine to do that.”
Arizona’s flu season tends to peak in February and March, according to Tinney, so it’s not too late to get the vaccine, she said. The vaccine takes two weeks to become effective.
Jamie Ison, who spent four weeks in the hospital and is still having trouble speaking because of vocal cord damage, didn’t get a flu shot.
“He keeps saying he didn’t even know you can get this sick from the flu,” Krissy Ison said. “When he woke up, he said, ‘This was just the flu?’”
Co-founder of the Arizona Agenda