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Health Department Expects Flu Season To Peak, Decline Soon

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Dr. Leah Devlin, director of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, announced during a Friday press conference that the state's flu outbreak should continue into January but then go into a sharp decline.

After also reporting that another child has died from the virus, Devlin said the strain of virus causing this outbreak is the more serious of two types.

Devlin said a 22-month-old girl from Wake County died from the flu on Dec. 17 after being hospitalized on Dec. 15. She was the fifth child in the state to die from the flu this flu season.

Because she was under 23 months, the girl was at high risk for flu complications. She had received a flu shot October 17, but had not received a second shot.

Children receiving flu shots for the first time should receive two vaccinations, 30 days apart, in order for the vaccination to be fully effective. There are no studies that show how effective the vaccination is in a previously unvaccinated child after just one dose.

The girl's death was announced about an hour after a funeral began for a 15-month-old Wilson County boy who died from the flu earlier this week.

Two of the five children died in the recovery period, one from an infection that can occur on the back end of a flu sickness.

In discussing the particular strain of the flu going around, Devlin said it is type A influenza, a severe form of the virus that can affect humans and some animals.

State epidemiologist Jeffrey Engel described the current season as a "moderate type A season.

"We have always known that type A flu can cause more severe disease than type B," Engel said. "This season, virtually 100 percent of our cases are type A, so it's not surprising that people are reporting worse symptoms and complications."

Last year, Engel said, North Carolina reported about 80 percent type B flu.

The two major distributors of the vaccine, including shots and FluMist, are making about 525,000 more doses available nationwide. North Carolina's portion should arrive by early- to mid-January 2004.

Doses will go directly to county health departments, depending upon need, and will not go to hospitals or any private practices.

The doses will be reserved for "at-risk" people first, beginning with children 6 months to 23 months, the elderly, and pregnant women.

Meanwhile, Wake County Human Services reported Friday that it has run out of shots but has a limited supply of FluMist for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49. It will offer FluMist on a first-come, first-served basis Monday, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. (or until supplies are exhausted), at Human Services Center-Sunnybrook Clinic E, 10 Sunnybrook Road, Raleigh.

Although no flu vaccine currently is available in Wake County, the Immunization Hotline number,


will have regular updates as vaccine supplies become available.

Devlin said the elderly, despite the recent deaths of children, remain the most likely group of people to die from the flu.

"A moderate type A season is going to be harder on everyone," said Engel. "We really won't know until later whether this season has been any harder on children than similar seasons in the past."

Twelve North Carolina children died during the 2001-2002 flu season, which is the last season for which numbers are available. Historical data shows that the worst season in recent history for children was the 1968-69 season, which resulted in the deaths of 209 children.

The worst season for deaths of all ages was 1997-98, when 1,261 North Carolinians died.

This flu season, more than five times the number of children have been immunized than were immunized in past flu seasons.

Last year, 29,000 high-risk North Carolina children got their flu shots through the state's immunization program. This year, more than 153,000 have been immunized. Data is not available on the numbers immunized through private providers.

None of the new vaccine doses being delivered will be reserved for flu booster shots for children under 9. Engel said those children should still have partial protection from their first shot.

Devlin said the flu season should continue for a few more weeks, with the peak beginning to decline in early January. Engel added that schools being out for the holidays should lessen things, at least with transmission among school-age children.

She said the flu is three times worse this year than previous years, and that it hit 10 weeks earlier than normal.

Flu season normally runs December to March.

"We may have a few more weeks of high activity, but we expect that we are close to our peak, and there should be a significant decline after that," Devlin said.

Flu symptoms begin suddenly and may include fever, severe headache, body aches, sore throat and cough.

Flu can make a person more susceptible to pneumonia -- an illness that puts a severe strain on the heart and lungs, which can be especially dangerous to people who already suffer from heart and lung disease.

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