Doctors learn lessons from deadly North Carolina flu season

Doctors in North Carolina learned an important lesson after last year’s flu vaccine wasn’t as effective as usual – in times like that, secondary treatments like antiviral medications are even more important.

State officials said 219 people died this past flu season in North Carolina, the most deaths since the Department of Health and Human Services began tracking flu deaths in 2009. Hardest hit were people age 65 and over, who accounted for nearly 83 percent of the fatal cases.

Last flu season was more deadly in large part because the main strain of the disease underwent genetic changes and didn’t match up well with the vaccine. That meant other steps like starting antiviral treatments as early as possible with drugs like Tamiflu become more important, state health department epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore told The Fayetteville Observer.

“When vaccine effectiveness is not as high and you have a flu virus that hits people over 65 the hardest, then it really does become important to remember those second lines of defense,” Moore said.

State health officials are trying to also get doctors to understand that the rapid flu tests can miss flu cases sometimes, and that can lead to delays in getting treatment early on after a person is infected, Moore said.

But to get antivirals, people have to go to the doctor, which exposes more people to the disease. That’s where doctors’ offices and hospitals need to make sure people who appear to have flu symptoms are isolated from everyone else. Surgical masks can also help, said Allison Aiello, a professor of epidemiology at the Gillings School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“I have several boxes of surgical masks and children’s masks that I keep handy in our household so that we can don them when ill and in the community or during a doctor’s visit,” she told the newspaper in an email. “Further adoption of this practice in households might help in situations where masks are not available.”

The scare over the Ebola virus may have helped hospitals with last year’s flu season. Medical providers were much more careful with patients from the beginning, screening them and keeping them isolated if they appear to have symptoms of a highly-contagious disease, Moore said.

“Honestly, I think the Ebola situation has maybe heightened awareness of screening and appropriate triage in emergency rooms and other health care settings,” Moore said. “It shouldn’t just be about screening for Ebola, it should also be about preventing spread of things we know are there.”

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Information from: The Fayetteville Observer, http://www.fayobserver.com

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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