An elderly North Carolinian is the first flu-related death for the 2019-20 flu season, the N.C. Division of Public Health reported Thursday.
The individual, who was in the age 65-and-older category, died in the first week of October. The agency said the individual resided in the central part of the state.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services cautions that the weekly report count does not represent all flu-associated deaths in the state because many go undiagnosed or unreported.
The division does not release the victims’ hometown, county, age or gender for privacy reasons.
“Flu is a serious illness and in some cases can lead to complications and even result in death, which is why we strongly encourage people to get vaccinated every year,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Zack Moore said in a statement.
The traditional flu season runs from Oct. 1 through March 31, though the flu has lingered well into April and May during some seasons. For the 2019-20 flu season, DHHS extended the ending to May 16.
The peak of the season tends to be mid-December through late February. Vaccine is recommended for those age six months and older.
“At this point, there is no information to say that this flu season will be worse than previous seasons,” Dr. Christopher Ohl, infectious diseases expert at Wake Forest Baptist Health, said when the flu season began.
That forecast may be of little comfort given that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that recent years have varied in severity, but the 2017-18 flu season was the most severe in a decade.
“While only moderate in severity, the 2018-2019 season was record-breaking in duration, with flu activity remaining elevated for 21 weeks,” the CDC said.
One reason for concern is that Australia had a more than fourfold increase in flu cases to 270,000 for its 2019 flu season. Australia’s flu season typically ends as the United States begins.
In North Carolina, there were 208 flu-related deaths in the 2018-19 season, 391 deaths in 2017-18, 218 deaths in 2016-17, 60 deaths in 2015-16, 219 deaths in 2014-15 and 107 deaths in 2013-14.
Both Ohl and state health officials recommend getting a flu shot as soon as possible.
“It’s hard to predict how much flu activity will be seen in our state any given year, but the department encourages everyone to protect themselves, their families and other people around them by getting vaccinated against the flu,” DHHS said in a statement. “Vaccination against the flu can make illness milder and reduce the risk of more serious outcomes.”
Besides the elderly, other vulnerable groups are children younger than 5, pregnant women, people with pre-existing medical conditions, and residents of nursing homes and other long-term care centers.
Nationally, about 68% of people 65 and older were vaccinated last season, while those 18 to 49 years old were the least vaccinated at 35%.