The flu season has hit unusually early this year, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, Texas is one of the states hardest hit. Physicians are urging everyone to get a flu shot.
Typically, the flu season peaks in January, but so far this year at least five deaths have already occurred in Texas. At a press conference Monday, medical experts at Seton Medical Center Austin said the number of positive flu tests has doubled over the past two weeks.
Dr. Irfan Hydari, the medical director of emergency services at Seton, said the flu strand that is responsible for the vast majority of illnesses is H1N1, or swine flu. That strand became notorious in 2009 when it caused a flu pandemic.
But Hydari said vaccine technology continues to improve, and this year it has been adapted to combat H1N1.
"[H1N1] is actually in the vaccines this year. So we're finding that people who have been vaccinated, even if they come down with the illness, have a less severe course of it," Hydari said.
He added that vaccine shortages that complicated flu season in the past is not an issue this year. Hydari also said that flu vaccines take about two weeks to take affect, and because the flu season typically peaks in January it's not too late to get a shot this year.
Hydari added that because holiday travel coincides with flu seasons, people planning to go out-of-state should be cautious to avoid spreading the disease and those experiencing any flu-like symptoms should stay home.
"The states that have been affected the most are Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama," Hydari said. "If you're planning to travel from one of those states, you do have the ability to carry that virus elsewhere."
Dr. Jack Bissett, an infectious disease physician at Seton, said certain demographics are more vulnerable to H1N1."It seems like older children and young adults get more severe disease," he said. That's at odds with other flu strands, which typically affect children under five and adults over 65 more severely.
Bissett said flu symptoms are typically non-specific, but fever is an indictor to seek medical attention. He said if people experiencing flu symptoms are prescribed the drug Tamiflu, it can help reduce the severity and duration of the illness.
Symptoms can range from moderate to severe, but physicians say it's best to take precautions. There are currently four adults at Seton Medical Center being treated with a heart-lung machine called Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) due to life-threatening complications from the flu. Dr. Jordan Weingarten, who works in Seton Medical Center Austin's ECMO program, said the machine is helping to keep the patients alive while their bodies fight the disease.
"Your average patient gets the flu and feels awful for a few days and then gets better and misses a few days from work or school," Weingarten said. "But it can cause pneumonia, respiratory failure, you may need to be on a ventilator to stay alive. There's a subset of those patients who cannot be kept alive even on a ventilator."
Weingarten said these are the patients who are put on ECMO, which has been used at Seton for the past three years. He said one patient has been successfully removed from ECMO this year after recovering from flu symptoms.
Cynthia Short suffered life-threatening complications from H1N1 while she was nine months pregnant two years ago. She was on ECMO for 18 days before recovering.
"It is very important to get a flu shot. I thought, I was in my early 30's and I never get sick and never had any lung or heart issues ... Don't believe the hype and think that it won't happen to you," she said.