At least four Galveston County residents have died after contracting different strains of the influenza virus, and another three died last weekend after experiencing flu-like symptoms, officials said Thursday.
Meanwhile, the influenza virus remains widespread in 25 states, including Texas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prompting experts to urge inoculations midway through the flu season. The Galveston County Health District reported 955 influenza cases so far this season, up from 674 in roughly the same time frame last season.
The four county residents who died ranged in age from 55 to 72 years. Two were women and two were men. Three of them died in December and one this month, Kurt Koopmann, a spokesman for the health district, said.
“Two died of H1N1, the one in 2009 that was called the swine flu,” Koopmann said. “One was Influenza B, and were weren’t able to determine which type the other was.”
Health-care providers are not required to report influenza-related deaths to the health district, but even though it’s not mandatory, the district urged doctors last month to report those deaths, Koopmann said.
Additionally, three people with flu-like symptoms, two women and one man, died over the weekend at their homes. Their ages were 56, 65 and 83, John Florence, a spokesman for the Galveston County Medical Examiner’s Office said.
Those deaths were separate from the health district’s count, as they didn’t occur under a doctor’s care, Florence said.
“They had been experiencing flu-like symptoms along with pre-existing medical problems prior to their deaths,” Florence said.
The medical examiner’s office arranged for tests to determine whether the three had the flu virus, but the reports have yet to return, Florence said.
Between 25,000 and 75,000 people will die each year of flu in the United States, Dr. Richard E. Rupp, a physician at the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, said.
“Part of the problem with the flu is it kills lots of people every single year,” Rupp said. “People always say the flu is not a major illness. People say, ‘I don’t want to get the flu shot. It doesn’t really matter.’
“But if you look it up, it turns out that the elderly and people with health problems die every year in large proportions in the U.S.”
Influenza is what pushes many older people over the edge when they’re suffering from heart disease or some other medical issue, Rupp said.
Rupp also works in pediatric urgent care, and he’s seen many flu cases in the last month. Most cases come in January, February or March, he said.
“This year, it seemed we saw more cases right out of the gate in November,” Rupp said, noting the CDC reported Texas was having cases earlier in the flu season.
Rupp recommended that everyone 6 months old or older take the flu vaccine to reduce the chances of becoming sick.
The flu affects people differently, and the virus doesn’t put everyone out of commission. Some people won’t develop a fever, while others could develop a runny nose, cough, congestion or body aches, Rupp said.
The flu can cause mild to severe illness, according to the CDC.
There is no shortage of the flu vaccine, although some medical offices might exhaust their stockpile and not order more the rest of the season, as a physician has to estimate how many does will be given and order before the flu season, Rupp said.
“Once the season starts, most don’t order more,” Rupp said. “Anything not given has to be wasted and it comes out of the bottom line. If there isn’t a lot of flu activity, people don’t rush to get vaccinated.”