This year’s influenza season is inspiring dread across the country. According to reports in the LA Times, some California hospitals look like “war zones” with tents set up to treat influenza patients.
An especially deadly flu season
The news is hardly better elsewhere. In Kentucky, the death toll from the flu just topped 50. In Texas, where the epidemic has hit hardest, there have been 1,555 flu-related fatalities so far.
It’s still weeks before the flu season is expected to peak, and probably months before epidemiologists know how many people will succumb to this outbreak, but already this season is shaping up as an especially vicious one.
The headlines are heartbreaking:
- A 10-year-old from Connecticut was as “healthy as an ox” before the flu killed him.
- A 27-year-old California woman “who never got sick” died within days.
- A 21-year-old fitness buff from Pennsylvania passed away after flu-related organ failure and septic shock.
- A 12-year-old Michigan boy died despite being rushed to the ER. “It was too late,” his mom explained, “it’s indescribable.” She later added a warning for other parents, “Don’t wait, it’s all I can say. This flu or whatever is going around this year is unbelievably dangerous.”
In normal years, people over 65 are at the greatest risk for death and hospitalization, but this season the young and healthy are suffering severe complications and losing their lives too. How can the influenza virus be so deadly? Here are some things you need to know.
Why flu shots offer only partial protection
One hundred years ago — 1918 to be precise — a flu pandemic swept the globe infecting about one-third of the world’s population. As estimated 50 to 100 million people died as a result. Ever since, scientists have been trying to develop a universal vaccine. But today, even the most successful seasonal vaccinations are at best 60 percent effective in warding off the flu.
There are several reasons that flu vaccinations have not proven more efficacious. First, the viruses that cause influenza have demonstrated an uncanny ability to mutate and adapt to the natural environment, host defenses and human countermeasures. Second, public health officials do not always anticipate which flu strains will be the most active in a given season. As a result, the medical community is often playing catch-up. After all, vaccines typically take months to create, but by that time it’s often too late.
Still, health experts say that current flu vaccines should be about 30 percent effective in preventing the H3N2 strain, which is responsible for the infamous “Aussie flu.” They also insist that the flu shot will lessen the severity of the flu if you do contract it.
Why is the flu proving so deadly? In fact, there are a number of ways that the flu can kill a person.
1. Respiratory failure caused by lung inflammation
According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior researcher at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, the flu virus can cause so much tissue damage, inflammation and fluid build up in a person’s lungs that they can’t metabolize oxygen. The result is a fatal form of respiratory failure caused by viral pneumonia.
2. Bacterial pneumonia
The flu can exacerbate existing health conditions in vulnerable populations. This is why influenza has always been an acute danger to the young, older people, those with compromised immune systems and individuals with chronic conditions. For instance, when a person with a chronic illness is fighting off a viral infection they are more vulnerable to bacterial outbreaks and infections. Pneumonia can be caused by either the flu virus itself, or secondary bacterial infections. Either way, it’s a life-threatening condition.
3. Organ failure
The influenza virus can trigger “multiple organ failure.” As Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City explains, “The flu virus grows primarily in your airways — your nose, trachea, the bronchi of your lungs, and, in some cases, deep down in the lung tissue.” This results in an immune response that leads to significant inflammation. However, Dr. Pavia adds that “That inflammation, in part, sets off a cascade of chemicals going into your bloodstream.” This activity can infect and damage one or more organs. When the inflammation and virus attack your heart it’s called myocarditis.
Sometimes, the body’s inflammatory response is so pervasive that it leads to an immediately life-threatening condition known as sepsis. This is caused by an immune system that gone into hyperdrive trying to fight off infections. As a result, inflammatory chemicals and bacterial agents traveling through the blood system can cause clots and rupture blood vessels. Infections can spread to multiple organs and blood pressure can drop precipitously. Unless sepsis is dealt with immediately the results are almost always fatal.
5. Worsening other conditions
The flu can exacerbate existing medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, heart disease and COPD. It can cause blood-glucose levels to fluctuate and lead to significant airway restrictions, which can result in life-threatening complications in individuals with pre-existing conditions.
Health experts say the best way to prevent the flu is to practice good hygiene, avoid contact with sick people and stay hydrated. You can click here for tips from the CDC for staying healthy this flu season. You can also click here and here for further info on the flu, flu prevention and home remedies.
— Scott O’Reilly