Fewer are dying from flu in NC, but health officials warn to stay on guard

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A week after state public health officials declared that the flu epidemic had peaked here, deaths linked to the viral infection dropped again to 18.

The total deaths for the week ending Feb. 24 compared to 27 deaths the previous week. There were two deaths in Wake County and one in Johnston County. Durham County’s information was not available. Mecklenburg County does not report flu deaths.

That brings the statewide total to 253 since the flu season began Oct. 1, far exceeding 218 deaths from the previous year.

But officials said that even as flu-related death totals fluctuate, total hospitalizations and reported cases continue to go down, indicating that the worst of the flu epidemic is over. Total flu activity is coming down but the jump in deaths is largely due to deaths from past weeks not being counted until this week, said Cobey Culton, spokesman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

Officials warned that the flu virus is still in circulation and will stick around for several more months, looking for more victims. The flu season typically lasts through May.

“It doesn’t mean the flu is gone,” said Ravi Jhaveri, a professor of pediatrics at UNC School of Medicine. “I think we’re starting to see a gradual slowdown but … let’s be clear: There are still plenty of people getting infected.”

Officials urged the public to continue hand-washing and sanitizing, and not sneezing into crowded areas.

“We could have another cycle come through,” said Michael Anthony “Tony” Moody, chief medical officer of Duke University’s Vaccine Institute.

Moody and Jhaveri said another strain of the flu could become active, or the currently active strain could find its way to vulnerable populations.

This flu season is one of the worst in memory. By comparison, the state reported 59 flu-related deaths in the 2015-16 flu season.

Part of the problem is that this year the flu vaccine is protecting only one-third of people who got the shot. In a flu season when public health experts more accurately predict which flu strains will be active, flu vaccine protects at least half the people who are inoculated.

The flu epidemic is filling hospitals with sniffling, aching people. As flu cases multiply, hospital visits for flu-like symptoms had surged to nearly 11 percent of all hospital visits statewide but have since dropped by half; the percentage peaked at just under 8 percent in the last flu season.

Most of the victims in North Carolina so far have been the elderly. Those who are most vulnerable to flu complications are the very old and the very young, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Flu-related deaths are typically associated with complications caused by the virus. Flu complications can include pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus infections, bacterial infections and immune system over-reactions.

People who have other conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, are also susceptible to complications that result when the body is fighting against influenza.

The CDC urges flu vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older with rare exceptions. The agency recommends injections over nasal sprays, which the CDC has not recommended for the past two years because of lower effectiveness.

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