Flu hitting New Mexico harder than most other states - Albuquerque Journal

Flu hitting New Mexico harder than most other states

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The flu has begun its rampage across New Mexico, contributing to four deaths this season and sending patients scurrying to area emergency rooms with body aches and coughing.

Federal data show the virus hit New Mexico harder than most other states in December, but a top state health official says it’s not too late to help contain the spread through vaccinations.

New Mexico is among 11 states reporting “widespread” flu activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest influenza surveillance report. The report also said New Mexico, Colorado and Georgia have the country’s highest levels of influenza-like illness, based on the proportion of outpatient visits related to influenza-like sickness.

The report uses data for the week that ended Dec. 22 and does not include the spike that one official says has occurred at the University of New Mexico Hospital in the past 10 days.

New statewide numbers are expected today.

Although the flu has afflicted communities across the state, Dr. Michael Landen, state epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health, said the northeastern quadrant has experienced some of the highest rates. The four reported flu-related deaths this season occurred in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Mora and Lincoln counties.

Flu season typically peaks from December to February, and Landen stressed Thursday that flu shots can still help limit the impact this year.

“We have a lot of influenza season left and a lot of opportunity to prevent disease by people getting vaccinated,” he said.

Dr. Steve McLaughlin, emergency medicine department chairman at the University of New Mexico, said he expects any new flu activity report to reflect a surge based on his experience treating patients at UNM Hospital and the Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho. He said that influenza is now accounting for an estimated 10 to 15 percent of all visits to the UNM emergency room, and that the onslaught began about 10 days ago.

“It just started very quickly,” McLaughlin said Thursday. “We went from no flu to a lot of flu very fast.”

Presbyterian Healthcare Services started experiencing a mild uptick in flu cases about two weeks ago that is accelerating, said Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, PHS’ chief patient safety officer.

It’s too soon to know what to expect in the coming months, he said, because the course of any flu season is hard to predict. But aside from an earlier-than-usual spike in statewide cases, Salvon-Harman said nothing about the current season seems out of the ordinary.

“Right now, we’re not seeing anything that’s particularly unusual or uncharacteristic for flu – nothing that would suggest this is a novel strain or anything along those lines,” he said.

Landen said the primary culprit in New Mexico and nationally appears to be the Influenza A H1N1 strain. That’s different from last year’s predominant strain, H3N2.

New Mexico had 70 influenza-related deaths in the 2017-18 season. Landen said only 43.7 percent of the state population was vaccinated during that season, the lowest rate since 2010.

“Unfortunately, I think some of the early information about a bad match for the influenza vaccine really sort of dampened enthusiasm for vaccination (during the 2017-18 season), which is really disappointing and probably led to more deaths in New Mexico,” he said.

Though it’s too soon to know exactly how well this year’s vaccine will fight the virus, Landen said, past vaccines have proved to be good matches for H1N1.

“Regardless of whether we have the optimal match or if the match was less than optimal, it’s still an appropriate thing … for most people in New Mexico to get,” he said, saying that vaccines reduce the likelihood of getting sick in the first place but often limit the severity or reduce the chance of hospitalization in those who still contract the virus.

The Department of Health recommends the flu vaccine for anyone over 6 months old but says it is particularly important for those who may experience more complicated flu cases. That includes pregnant women and those who recently gave birth; anyone under 5 or over 65; nursing home residents; those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart or lung disease and those who are morbidly obese; American Indians and Alaska Natives; and those who care for anyone in the same groups.

Anyone in the above groups who thinks he or she has the flu – common symptoms include fever, fatigue, head and body aches, sore throat and congestion – should contact his or her provider for possible treatment with antiviral medicine, DOH says.

But those who are not at a high risk for complications, are otherwise healthy and don’t have extreme symptoms such as breathing difficulty can likely stay home and take care of themselves, McLaughlin said.

“Don’t go to work; don’t go out in public and spread it around,” he said. “(We’re) really encouraging people to wash their hands (and) if they’re coughing to cover their cough.

“It’s very contagious.”

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