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H1N1 flu hospitalizing younger adults at higher rate than usual

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Christopher Perez, with ABQ Health Partners, gives a flu shot to Patti Williams of Albuquerque in a van parked outside the State Capitol in Santa Fe. The van is provided by BlueCross BlueShield of New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Christopher Perez, with ABQ Health Partners, gives a flu shot to Patti Williams of Albuquerque in a van parked outside the State Capitol in Santa Fe. The van is provided by BlueCross BlueShield of New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The influenza strain most prevalent in the U.S. this year is hospitalizing younger adults at higher-than-usual rates, health officials report.

But the 2013-2014 flu season has not spared older New Mexicans, who account for three of the state’s four reported flu deaths so far, health officials said Thursday.

The latest New Mexico flu deaths include those of a 45-year-old Rio Arriba man and two Bernalillo County men, ages 79 and 73, the New Mexico Department of Health announced Thursday. Flu killed a 76-year-old Santa Fe woman earlier this month.

Health officials recommend that all New Mexicans 6 months and older get a seasonal flu vaccine, which guards against the 2009 H1N1 flu strain that is most prevalent this year.

That strain caused the 2009 flu pandemic that caused widespread illness in children and younger adults.

“There is a higher percentage of hospitalizations in the young adult population than we normally see,” both in New Mexico and nationally, said Dr. Chad Smelser, medical epidemiologist for the New Mexico Department of Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month that people ages 18 to 64 comprise 61 percent of flu hospitalizations reported from Oct. 1 to Jan. 11.

Most years, people ages 65 and older account for a majority of flu hospitalizations, the CDC reported. The pattern of more hospitalizations among younger adults was also seen during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

Smelser said he did not have specific hospitalization data for New Mexico.

Flu activity appears to have tapered somewhat since late December throughout most of New Mexico, according to health department data.

Statewide, 5.6 percent of patients seeking treatment at medical clinics last week showed symptoms of influenza, down from 7 percent Dec. 28.

Flu symptoms include an abrupt fever, muscle pain, headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat and/or runny nose. Some people may also have nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

The viral illness is transmitted through sneezes, coughs and touching infected surfaces.

Smelser said it is too early to predict whether flu activity has peaked in New Mexico. “It’s a good thing that (the rate) has gone down, but it may rise again later,” he said.

Flu activity this year, and in most years, is highest in southeastern New Mexico, which includes Quay, DeBaca, Curry, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Chaves, Eddy and Lea counties, Smelser said.

Nearly 13 percent of patients treated in clinics in those counties last week showed symptoms of flu, state data shows.

Higher rates of chronic disease and cigarette smoking in southeast New Mexico contribute to higher rates of flu symptoms observed in those counties, Smelser said.

New Mexico had experienced 10 lab-confirmed flu deaths from Oct. 1 2012 through January 2013. Smelser warned against year-to-year comparisons because flu activity peaks at different times each season.

New Mexico had a total of 20 lab-confirmed flu deaths during the entire 2012-2013 flu season, including three children, the agency’s data shows. The agency reported a total of six New Mexico flu deaths during the 2011-2012 season.

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