Although we are just barely halfway through the flu season, it’s looking like the number of flu-related deaths will surpass the total for last year, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.
The department on Friday said there have been 34 flu-related deaths, all in adults, and 100 pneumonia-related deaths.
“Last year, the first flu death of the season was not reported until early February,” said NMDOH spokesman David Morgan.
In all, the 2016-17 flu season in New Mexico saw 222 deaths: 27 adult flu deaths and 195 pneumonia deaths.
“We include pneumonia in the mix because flu symptoms left untreated, especially in high risk groups, can turn to pneumonia, and if someone in those high risk groups gets pneumonia it greatly increases their risk of death,” Morgan said.
In the 2015-16 flu season, there were 190 flu-related deaths, including 30 adult flu deaths, one pediatric death (the last pediatric flu death reported in New Mexico), and 159 pneumonia deaths.
“We’re just past the halfway point of the season so there is a probability that the number of deaths will outpace the number in the prior two flu seasons,” Morgan said.
The flu season in New Mexico and nationwide generally runs from October through the end of March, but in particularly bad years can stretch into May, he said.
Among the factors to explain this season’s high rate of influenza is the relatively low efficacy rate of the current vaccine and the overlapping of different strains of the virus.
Interim findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate this season’s vaccine has an effectiveness rate of 36 percent, which is even lower than the typical 40-60 percent range of flu vaccine effectiveness.
“It is common during any flu season to see influenza A cases at the beginning of the season and influenza B cases to be more prevalent toward the end,” Morgan said. “This year the influenza A and influenza B activity peaks were close together, and that contributed to hospitals reporting a higher number of influenza-like illness.”
In New Mexico, flu activity is largely monitored by a network of 45 outpatient providers throughout the state that report influenza-like illness. For the week ending Feb. 10, participating providers reported that 8.5 percent of all patient visits were for influenza-like illness.
Since January, flu-related hospitalizations have climbed more than threefold, with people older than 65 years and children 0-4 years of age having the highest risks.
Despite the lower than normal efficacy of the flu vaccine this season, the NMDOH still recommends people get vaccinated as a way to stave off the flu or mitigate its severity.