UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville has seen more than 150 influenza-related admissions and a dozen deaths since late October, UF Health and county public health officials reported Thursday.
The trend mirrors patterns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is just now noting in multiple cities across the country.
Of particular concern is the number of younger patients susceptible to this strain of the flu, a variant of H1N1, which first surfaced in 2009, officials said.
Nine of the patients who fell ill were then transferred to UF Health Shands Hospital from neighboring counties in north Florida; three were from Alachua County. Although the vast majority of people who get the flu recover, 11 of the patients had not been vaccinated. Five of them were under the age of 40, raising concerns that this year’s influenza strain is especially virulent for younger populations.
“This is a nasty strain, and it’s hitting young people,” said Dr. J. Glenn Morris of the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute. “We often tend to think of the flu as something that kills the old and infirmed. But we’re seeing a striking increase in the number of younger patients contracting the flu and we are also seeing increased severity. Somehow this strain has mutated and it doesn’t look like it’s changed for the better.
Flu season typically peaks in late January or early February, but this year, not so much. According to the Centers for Disease Control, seasonal flu rates are increasing nationwide. In fact, it's already up 150 percent in some parts of the country compared to last year. The number of cases right now in Jacksonville falls slightly above the national average.
Dr. Susan Rehm, who treats infectious diseases at Cleveland Clinic, says it's tough to predict how severe a flu season will be.
"They say, 'If you've seen one flu season, you've seen one flu season,' so it is somewhat unpredictable as to when the peak will be every year," she explained.
Rehm says your best defense against influenza is vaccination. CDC researchers say the vaccine is only 60 percent effective, but still lowers your risk of contracting the flu during its peak. It takes about two weeks for the body to develop antibodies and provide protection, so if you haven't been vaccinated, now is the time.
"Even if you have been ill and you didn't get the vaccine then, you maybe should take it now because there are either 3 or 4 different strains of the influenza virus," said Rehm.
A majority of the cases being seen this year are type-A, which typically causes a sore throat, aches and pains, and sometimes fever. Rehm says for added protection against the flu you should follow the CDC's "Take 3" approach.
"Take flu vaccine. The second take is to take personal measures like hand washing, staying out of crowds, and staying home when you're ill. The third take is to take prescription anti-viral medication if your healthcare professional recommends it," Rehm advised.
Rehm says an easy way to tell if you've contracted the flu is by its sudden onset, fever and aches.
For weekly updates from the Centers for Disease Control on the spread of the flu nationwide and state by state, go to www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/.
Read more information on the flu from the Florida Department of Health at www.FloridaHealth.gov.