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Deadly flu season hits Georgia

Young adults targeted by this year's flu strain

ATLANTA (MCT) — The freezing cold isn’t the only harsh winter visitor to Georgia this week: State health officials are reporting a deadly flare-up of the flu.

The illness’ surge in Georgia has left nine people dead and put 400 in the hospital. The January timing of the spike is no surprise, but a primary class of victims is: This year’s flu is hitting young adults hard.

“What we’re seeing that disturbs us is … the age that seems to be impacted is a younger age group,” said Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of health protection at the Georgia Department of Public Health. “Typically with seasonal flu, it’s the very young or the elderly.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia was one of 28 states reporting widespread flu the last week of December.

This year’s mix includes the H1N1 strain, which made its debut in a 2009 pandemic as “swine flu.” It was so powerful in 2009 because it was brand new, O’Neal said. Since then it hasn’t been as destructive, because people became immune. However, he said, it may have mutated a bit, making people vulnerable again.

Other flu strains are making the rounds, too, and this year’s vaccine is designed to combat four different varieties.

In fact, although H1N1 is getting a lot of attention because of its deadly history, it’s not the main player this year. It makes up less than 10 percent of all cases diagnosed so far.

In recent weeks, Anthony Ferrara has seen it. He’s an emergency medicine physician at North Atlanta Urgent Care centers, where hundreds of flu-stricken patients have landed. Some are “totally sick, not able to move,” Ferrara said.

Katie Cole didn’t have to go to a care center; she was one of the lucky ones, depending on how you look at it. She works at a hospital and went to get her flu shot — but it was too late. The nurse giving the shot figured out that Cole, 25, already was coming down with the flu.

Since she was diagnosed so early, Cole was able treat the malady with Tamiflu, and was only off work for half the week.

Even O’Neal, interviewed this week, was sick with something, but it wasn’t flu, he assured a reporter. The difference between what he’s got — probably a cold — and the flu is that the flu hits faster and is more severe, he said.

“The flu is overwhelming in terms of the way you feel,” O’Neal said. “You really feel like you’ve been gripped by a vise and wrung out … the weakness and the malaise is just extraordinary.”

Nevertheless, flu is seldom deadly in its own right, he said. More often, people die of a secondary condition, such as bacterial pneumonia, which does additional damage after the flu has weakened the patient.

The bitter cold can cut both ways for the flu. On the one hand, the colder it is, the drier the air. That’s what makes many people catch the flu, since protective mucous dries out, making the skin prone to crack and let in germs. On the other hand, in bitter cold people may play hermit, lowering the chance of congregating and spreading germs.

As for Cole, she knows she avoided a lot of misery, as did her family. As soon as she was diagnosed, she said, “I came home and Lysoled everything.”

She has had full-blown flu and knows what that’s like. “It was awful,” she said. “I was laid up on the couch for a week and a half.”

It’s too early to say whether Georgia is headed for a worse-than-usual flu season, or whether the number of cases is actually leveling off, O’Neal said. Public health statistics always take a couple of weeks to compile, so the warnings and assessments flow from somewhat dated information.

One day this week, Ferrara said, he was surprised to see the number of flu patients slow to a trickle.

Whatever the case, doctors still want people older than 6 months to get vaccinated. “The flu vaccine does work,” Ferrara said. “My staff has been vaccinated, as far as I’m aware none of them have been out.”