Why young, healthy people are dying from the flu this season

While flu is typically thought to be most risky for the very young and very old, this year’s flu season has seen a rise in young, seemingly healthy people dying. (Photo: Getty Images)

The flu has taken the lives of a 20-year-old Arizona mom, a 21-year-old Pennsylvania fitness enthusiast, and a 51-year-old Massachusetts mother of two in recent weeks. A simple runny nose and light cough are known to take the lives of children under 2, but healthy young adults are dying during this year’s flu season.

Experts say this season is more severe than in past years. Several factors are contributing to the rising flu death tolls sweeping the nation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the flu is widespread everywhere in the U.S. except for Hawaii and the District of Columbia. Hospitals are having a harder time treating patients with the flu, mainly because the H3N2 virus is the dominant circulating strain. It hits humans harder than other strains — and scientists don’t know why, according to a recent analysis in The Atlantic.

Vaccines developed for this year’s strain are only 10 percent effective against the H3N2 virus, also commonly known as the Australian flu. Although researchers were able to predict ahead of time the strain of this year’s season, the chicken eggs in which vaccines are created can pick up mutations that look a little different than the H3N2 affecting humans — making the vaccine less effective. However, this does not mean it is obsolete. The vaccine can still protect against other strains of flu such as the H1N1 and B viruses, and it provides at least some immunity to H3N2. The CDC advises to still get the shot.

Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria aftermath is contributing to flu season deaths as well. The island’s production of IV bags and medical equipment was halted because of the power blackout Puerto Rico is still facing, five months after the storm. Hospitals go through hundreds of IV bags a day to replenish fluids for patients and to administer drugs such as antibiotics and painkillers. As more patients are treated for flu, hospitals across the nation are scrambling for these supplies and have resorted to other measures.

“If we can’t support patients coming in emergency rooms who have the flu, more people are going to die,” predicts Deborah Pasko, director of medication safety and quality at the American Society of Health System Pharmacists. “I see it as a crisis,” she told the Associated Press.

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