Elizabeth Plyler gets a flu shot from Greg Wicker, a registered medical assistant at Dunwoody Pediatrics. The 10 year-old spent four days in ICU after coming down with the flu. Although flu season didn't officially begin until October, doctors are already diagnosing the virus in metro Atlanta children.

Deadly flu season arrives in Georgia

The freezing cold isn’t the only harsh winter visitor to Georgia: State health officials are reporting a deadly flare-up of the flu.

The illness’ surge in Georgia has left 19 people dead and put at least 470 in the hospital, according to figures released Friday by the Georgia Department of Public Health. Ten of the deaths were reported the week that ended Jan. 4, the most recent period for which data are available.

The December-January timing of the spike is no surprise, but a primary class of victims is: This year’s flu is hitting younger adults hard.

“What we’re seeing that disturbs us is … the age that seems to be impacted is a younger age group,” said Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of health protection at the state health department. “Typically with seasonal flu, it’s the very young or the elderly.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia was one of 28 states that has reported widespread flu. At this time last year, Georgia had recorded just two flu-related deaths, according to DPH reports.

This year’s mix includes the H1N1 strain, which made its debut in a 2009 pandemic as “swine flu.” It was so powerful in 2009 because it was brand new, O’Neal said. Since then it hasn’t been as destructive, because people became immune. But in the intervening years, those antibodies people built up may have worn off, said Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the epidemiology branch in the influenza division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“That’s exactly why we recommend that everybody get vaccinated every single year,” Bresee said.

Other flu strains are making the rounds, too, and this year’s vaccine is designed to combat four different varieties.

In recent weeks, Anthony Ferrara has seen it. He’s an emergency medicine physician at North Atlanta Urgent Care centers, where hundreds of flu-stricken patients have landed. Some are “totally sick, not able to move,” Ferrara said.

Katie Cole didn’t have to go to a care center; she was one of the lucky ones, depending on how you look at it. She works at a hospital and went to get her flu shot — but it was too late. The nurse giving the shot figured out that Cole, 24, already was coming down with the flu.

Since she was diagnosed so early, Cole was able treat the malady with Tamiflu, and was only off work for half the week.

Even O’Neal, interviewed this week, was sick with something, but it wasn’t flu, he assured a reporter. The difference between what he’s got — probably a cold — and the flu is that the flu hits faster and is more severe, he said.

“The flu is overwhelming in terms of the way you feel,” O’Neal said. “You really feel like you’ve been gripped by a vise and wrung out … the weakness and the malaise is just extraordinary.”

Nevertheless, flu is seldom deadly in its own right, he said. More often, people die of a secondary condition, such as bacterial pneumonia, which does additional damage after the flu has weakened the patient.

The bitter cold can cut both ways for the flu. On the one hand, the colder it is, the drier the air. That’s what makes many people catch the flu, since protective mucous dries out, allowing germs to get in. On the other hand, in bitter cold people may play hermit, lowering the chance of congregating and spreading germs.

As for Cole, she knows she avoided a lot of misery, as did her family. As soon as she was diagnosed, she said, “I came home and Lysoled everything.”

She has had full-blown flu and knows what that’s like. “It was awful,” she said. “I was laid up on the couch for a week and a half.”

It’s too early to say whether Georgia is headed for a worse-than-usual flu season, or whether the number of cases is actually leveling off, O’Neal and Bresee said.

On the one hand, there’s the recent spike in deaths. On the other hand, the number of positive lab tests for new cases is decreasing, and Ferrara said that one day this week he was surprised to see the number of flu patients slow to a trickle.

Moreover, the numbers themselves are tricky. Public health statistics always take a couple of weeks to compile, so the warnings and assessments flow from somewhat dated information. In addition, said Bresee, the number of flu-related deaths officially attributed to the flu is likely the tip of the iceberg.

Whatever the case, doctors still want people older than 6 months to get vaccinated. “The flu vaccine does work,” Ferrara said. “My staff has been vaccinated, as far as I’m aware none of them have been out.”

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