Health & Fitness

January 14, 2014

Flu-related death toll rises to 5 in Tarrant County

Four of the five people who have died were not vaccinated against the virus, a public health official says.

Three more flu-related deaths have been reported to the Tarrant County public health department, bringing the toll to five since flu season began in the fall, an official said Tuesday.

One of the dead had gotten a flu shot but had underlying health conditions, said Dr. Russ Jones, the county’s chief epidemiologist.

The others had not had flu shots, Jones said.

The victims were a person between 30 and 40, two people in their 40s and two older than 70, Jones said. One died in December, the others in January.

Jones’ tally is unofficial and based on voluntary reporting by the county’s hospitals. State law requires hospitals to report children’s flu deaths only.

Five children have died in Texas, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Most of the positive flu tests reported in Tarrant County — about 98 percent — are for Type A, which includes the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, according to public health records.

The H1N1 virus was initially encountered in Tarrant County in the 2009-10 flu season, and it returned in the 2011-12 flu season, and again for 2013-14, Jones said.

“What we learned in 2009 with this virus is that it tends to affect the middle-aged,” Jones said. “Other viruses tend to sicken the elderly and the very young.”

Jones noted that there are limitations to reporting flu deaths. Often, flu is the final insult to a body that is suffering from another illness. Alternatively, people get the flu, which weakens their systems, and another illness develops.

“It often happens that people get the flu and then they die from pneumonia,” Jones said. “So what do you put on the death certificate?”

Dallas County has reported 26 deaths from flu-related illnesses. Although not required by state law, the Dallas County health department makes intensive surveillance efforts regarding adult flu deaths, according to Dr. Zachary Thompson, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services.

Eight flu-related deaths have been reported in Travis County, according to the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

Of the eight Travis County deaths, five were younger than 60, a health department spokeswoman said. Many of them had underlying conditions that put them at greater risk of flu complications, she said.

Because of concerns about the number of flu-related illnesses, the Travis County health department increased its tracking of cases, she said. Last week, the health department reported it had counted 57 patients with flu-like illness at six Travis County hospitals.

Get a flu shot

“There is still time to get a flu shot,” Jones said. “If you have not gotten vaccinated, do it now.”

The flu shot typically will not convey maximum protection until after two weeks, Jones said. Flu cases generally peak in January or February, Jones said.

“We have the flu shot here at the health department, but we can give it only to people who don’t have health insurance,” Jones said.

Obesity, pregnancy and serious illnesses are risk factors that can intensify or make it easier to contract the flu, Jones said.

People who have a fever, start coughing and generally feel bad should see a doctor, Jones said. If flu is diagnosed, they can get anti-viral treatment that will lessen the severity of the illness, Jones said.

“Stay home and get plenty of rest,” Jones said. “You can get back on your feet in a week, but you may not feel right until after two weeks.”

This report includes material from the Austin American-Statesman.

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