Three recent deaths attributed to flu in Northern New Mexico

January 4, 2019

Three death certificates listing influenza as the cause trickled in over the holidays in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Mora counties, bringing the total number of flu deaths this season in New Mexico to four, the state Department of Health announced Thursday.

About 50 other deaths in the state have been caused by cases of flu-related pneumonia during a winter flu season that has yet to peak, health officials said.

The state’s death toll from the flu, a respiratory virus that can pool in the lungs and become a severe infection, is expected to increase as the season continues. The most common strain this year is H1N1, the virus responsible for the 2009 flu pandemic.

In the wake of a 2017-18 season that sharply spiked in February and saw nearly 290 flu-related deaths in New Mexico — about 100 more than two years earlier — state health officials and medical professionals are urging residents who haven’t been inoculated to get the vaccination as soon as possible, particularly in Santa Fe, which is at the illness’s epicenter.

Northeastern New Mexico, which includes Santa Fe and Taos counties, is experiencing the highest rate of flu cases — double the statewide rate and nearly threefold the national average.

“This past week we have seen 20 to 30 [cases] a day that are testing positive for flu,” said Dr. Lesa Fraker, the medical director of UltiMED Urgent Medical Care, which has locations in Santa Fe, Rio Rancho, Angel Fire and Red River.

“It is definitely a problem right now,” Fraker said. “We see whole families that are testing positive.”

At the ski resorts, she added, “We are seeing more flu than ski injuries, which is pretty unusual.”

“If you haven’t gotten your influenza vaccine, get it now,” said Dr. Michael Landen, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health.

More than half the population in the state isn’t taking advantage of the available vaccine, Landen said. Last, year, amid a particularly aggressive strain of flu, only 43.7 percent of New Mexicans got vaccinated, he added.

Vaccinations take about two weeks to become effective.

While the flu vaccine being administered this year appears to be more effective than last year’s, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said was only about 25 percent effective against the prevalent strain that season, some patients who have had the immunization are still getting sick, Fraker said.

On Thursday afternoon, Ava Blum, a volunteer teaching assistant, was filling out a medical intake form at UltiMED in Santa Fe.

“I’m in my third week of it,” said Blum, 68, who had a flu shot this year and thought she had some kind of hybrid flu strain blended with a cold.

Bundled in her coat, scarf and hat, she said she’s had a burning throat, aches and fatigue for weeks.

“Everybody has told me they have the same thing. Some of them went to the ER, it’s so bad,” Blum said. “This is a very virulent, aggressive one. … I’ve lost four pounds.”

Landen said vaccinations generally have led to a downward trend in flu-related illness and death. He believes the state needs to do a better job of educating New Mexicans about the need for vaccination.

David Morgan, a Health Department spokesman, said the agency has focused on providing the vaccine to children and low-income adults, and it sent flyers to residents between age 66 and 70 who had not received vaccinations.

Pregnant women, individuals over age 65, children younger than age 5, and people with asthma or other heart or lung diseases are particularly at risk of serious complications from flu. The Health Department says risks are also high for Native Americans, people living in nursing homes and people who are severely overweight.

Health officials suggest those who develop a cough, fever, sore throat, congestion, exhaustion, headache or muscle aches see a doctor and start taking antiviral medications as soon as possible. Patients remain contagious for five days after exhibiting symptoms.

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