Wisconsin is in the midst of peak flu season, and this year, young and middle-aged adults are being hit hardest.
Throughout the state, about 850 people have been hospitalized and some deaths have been reported. It’s the highest rate of hospitalizations for younger people since the swine flu pandemic four years ago.
In 2009, the swine flu, or H1N1, spread worldwide and caused thousands of deaths before the pandemic was declared over in the summer of 2010.
But H1N1 never completely went away, and now it’s become the predominant flu strain once again, according to Paul Biedrzycki, director of disease control and environmental health for the City of Milwaukee.
“It really is hitting the middle-aged and young adult cohort very hard,” Biedrzycki says.
That includes people between age 19 and 64.
“We typically see hospitalizations in the elderly and sometimes in the very young, the pediatric population. This year, we’re seeing over a 70 percent increase in hospitalization of young and middle-aged adults. Many have underlying health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes. But others, a good chunk of others, do not,” Biedrzycki says.
Biedrzycki says the majority of those in the hospital without underlying health problems did not get the flu vaccine. He says younger people may also be getting sicker simply because they’ve been exposed to fewer flu viruses in their lifetime and their immune systems aren’t as prepared to fight.
Influenza can be also be extremely dangerous for pregnant women, and the H1N1 strain in particular. Late last week, health officials reported the deaths of two Wisconsin women from the flu – one who was pregnant and one who had just given birth. Biedrzycki says the virus attacks pregnant women differently because of changes in their immune, pulmonary and endocrine systems.
He says those changes make the body more vulnerable to other so-called “opportunistic” infections that co-circulate during flu season, such as pneumonia.
“That puts them and their babies at risk, so pregnant women are considered a high risk category for flu infection in any seasonal epidemic,” Biedrzycki says.
While there are very serious cases, milder ones are showing up increasingly in doctors’ offices.
Dr. Mark Obermyer is a primary care physician with Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin. He says most of his flu patients this season have mirrored statewide trends – they’re in their 20s and early 30s.
“I have seen people with what I would consider severe symptoms, meaning high fevers, vomiting, weakness, even shortness of breath who have struggled, but at the same time did recover in a short time frame,” Obermyer says.
Obermyer says in many cases, he recommends over-the-counter medication to bring down a fever or help with aches and pains.
“But in most folks, it’s time, it’s rest, it’s drinking plenty of fluids and letting their immune system take care of it,” Obermyer says.
The flu season runs through April, so officials say it’s not too late to get the vaccination. Though, many are still reluctant.
Paul Biedrzycki of the Milwaukee Health Department, says there are some myths about the flu shot, including that it can give you the flu. He says that’s impossible because the vaccine is made from an inactive virus that cannot infect a person.
Some also mistrust vaccines over fears they could cause health problems. But Biedrzycki, and the broader medical community, say the influenza vaccine is safe, including for pregnant women.
“There is no compelling medical evidence, no compelling epidemiologic evidence, that vaccinations, and particular flu vaccine, cause these adverse health effects,” Biedrzycki says.
Biedrzycki also says many people who eschew the flu shot believe they can ride out the illness if they get it. But he says while infected, they could transmit the flu to people who are at higher risk, and contribute to a larger community epidemic.