ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dr. Randall Knott has a grudging admiration for the 2009 pandemic H1N1 influenza virus, which has caused sickness and death in New Mexico and across the planet for nearly a decade.
“This virus is a killer,” said Knott, a University of New Mexico pediatrician. “Nature has found an amazingly successful virus.”
New Mexico has so far enjoyed a mild flu season, in part because the two strains most prevalent in the U.S. this year have hammered the state in the past, providing the state with hard-won immunity.
In addition, the seasonal flu vaccine protects against both those strains.
“We had so much disease when it first came here,” Knott said of 2009 pandemic H1N1, which hospitalized more than 1,000 New Mexicans and killed 58 in 2009-2010. “We were the epicenter for the country.”
A second flu virus in wide circulation this season is an H3N2 strain that caused widespread illness last year in New Mexico.
Flu illnesses last year peaked in March and caused 32 flu-related deaths in New Mexico, according to Department of Health data.
“We are benefiting from all the immunity that was provided by so many people contracting (H3N2) last year,” Knott said.
Exposure to a flu strain provides lifelong immunity to that strain.
Vaccine manufacturers did a good job matching the seasonal flu vaccine to the two major strains now circulating.
“That’s one more important reason to continue getting the vaccine,” Knott said. With flu season bearing down on New Mexico, “now is a good time to get that flu vaccine.”
The severity of flu season remains impossible to predict, said David Selvage, infectious disease epidemiologist bureau chief for the Department of Health.
“We can never really predict when we see flu peak,” Selvage said, noting the season can peak as early as October or as late as spring. “It seems to be gradually increasing, but levels are still relatively low at this point.”
New Mexicans shouldn’t be complacent about flu, he said.
“It’s not too late to get the flu shot,” he said.