The 2015-2016 flu season for the United States began on Oct. 4 and both Carolinas have already reported flu deaths. South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control reported four influenza deaths on Oct. 20. Neighboring North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services reported a flu death on Oct. 1, for the current flu season.
Influenza is a viral respiratory illness that appears with greatest frequency in the fall and winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state. It is considered seasonal to distinguish it from novel influenzas that may appear at any time. There is no cure but various formulations of vaccine are available. In severe illnesses, anti-viral medications may be prescribed.
As of Oct. 9, the CDC reports that 109,400,000 doses of influenza vaccine have been distributed. Manufacturers believe that they will be able to produce a total of just over 170 million doses for this flu season. During the 2014-2015 flu season, there were 147.8 million doses distributed.
The flu vaccine is available in several formulations and for several types of delivery systems. The dose will either be a trivalent or a quadrivalent formula, immunizing against three flu types or against four. The vaccine can be delivered in pre-filled, single use syringes or in vials which contain multiple doses. Single dose syringes contain no thimerosal and are ideal for those with concerns about the topic. Multi-dose vials contain the ethyl mercury-based preservative.
Delivering the flu vaccine no longer means receiving a traditional “flu shot.” FluMist is an inhaled vaccine that uses a live virus that has been weakened. Vaccine can also be delivered by a single dose prefilled microinjection system.
Some patients may have allergies to eggs that could prevent the use of most vaccine formulations. For those patients, single dose syringes of a trivalent, recombinant influenza vaccine, are on the market. This formula is not made using eggs.
The CDC estimates that between five and 20 percent of the American population suffer from an influenza illness every year. About 200,000 people are hospitalized on average for the flu and its complications. The elderly, infants and patients with compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk of serious illness or death.
The influenza deaths in North and South Carolina are just the beginning. While the CDC estimates annual flu deaths, it is not a reportable illness so there are no national statistics. Childhood deaths from influenza have been reportable since 2004. In 2014-2015 there were 146 pediatric deaths due to influenza, 111 in the prior year and 171 in 2012-2013.
Not all respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter are the flu. Many other viruses are in circulation and cause patients to to suffer flu-like symptoms. One of the most severe is caused by the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).