The recent deaths of six elderly people in northwest Nevada are being investigated to see if they were caused by the flu, state health authorities said Thursday.
In most of the cases "there was at least a question that they might be flu-related," state Epidemiologist Randall Todd said. At least two of the people might have died from other causes, he said.
"We're awaiting some lab tests to see exactly what the cause of death was," Todd said. "We're not calling these confirmed flu deaths yet because we just don't know." Test results aren't expected until next week.
The communities where the deaths occurred weren't immediately named. The area encompasses Reno and Carson City and adjacent towns.
Nevada's total of influenza-like illnesses increased from about 3,300 late last week to more than 3,500 as of Thursday. Todd said 50 cases of influenza have been confirmed through cultures. The number of cases confirmed through rapid lab tests jumped to 200 this week, up from the 80 confirmed late last week.
About 10 percent of patients visiting doctors this week complained of influenza like symptoms, Todd said. That's up from the 6 percent reported during the peak of flu season last year.
Health officials have not determined whether Nevada has reached the peak of flu season this year. Most suspected cases go unreported unless the affected patient is treated at a hospital or by a doctor who reports it to the state, Todd said.
Todd also said it's important to note that the total of Nevada deaths related to influenza is about 350 a year. Most of those deaths occur during a flu season that extends from late November and early December to March or April.
Supplies of flu vaccine "are running pretty short" throughout Nevada, Todd said, adding that the state was expecting another shipment Thursday.
"We can definitely see the bottom of the barrel here, so we're eagerly awaiting this expected shipment which will help a little," he said.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday expressing concern about a shortage of flu vaccine in southern Nevada and asking the agency to develop a plan to acquire and distribute more.
Clark County public health officials had 25,000 doses of vaccine to inoculate Las Vegas-area residents but ran out Tuesday. Some private physicians have small supplies of the vaccine for high-risk patients, and other doctors are offering a new aerosol flu vaccine for persons ages 4 to 49.
"It is imperative that adequate supplies of the flu vaccine are available, especially for the young and elderly, to ensure the health of our communities," Berkley wrote to Julie Gerberding, CDC's director.
Berkley said in her letter that 250 people died from the sickness last year in Clark County.
Also Thursday, a public health nurse in the eastern Nevada town of Elko said a clinic that provided flu shots to hundreds of people this week ran out of the vaccine for babies and toddlers up to age 4. Margaret Boston said officials are scrambling to get the vaccine by Monday.
Nevada is one of 24 states have been hit hard by this year's early flu outbreak, and the government is rushing to ship 100,000 doses of the vaccine to states to combat shortages, based on each state's population.
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Influenza (the flu)
Influenza, also known as the flu, is a contagious disease that is caused by the influenza virus. It attacks the respiratory tract in humans (nose, throat, and lungs). The flu is different from a cold. Influenza usually comes on suddenly and may include these symptoms:
These symptoms are usually referred to as "flu-like symptoms."
Anyone Can Get the Flu, But the Disease Is More Severe for Some People
Most people who get influenza will recover in one to two weeks, but some people will develop life-threatening complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of the flu. Millions of people in the United States, about 10% to 20% of U.S. residents, will get influenza each year. An average of about 36,000 people per year in the United States die from influenza, and 114,000 per year have to be admitted to the hospital as a result of influenza. Anyone can get the flu (even healthy people), and serious problems from influenza can happen at any age. People age 65 years and older, people of any age with chronic medical conditions, and very young children are more likely to get complications from influenza. Pneumonia, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections are three examples of complications from flu. The flu can make chronic health problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have the flu, and people with chronic congestive heart failure may have worsening of this condition that is triggered by the flu.
How the Influenza Virus Is Passed Around
The flu is spread, or transmitted, when a person who has the flu coughs, sneezes, or speaks and sends flu virus into the air, and other people inhale the virus. The virus enters the nose, throat, or lungs of a person and begins to multiply, causing symptoms of influenza. Influenza may, less often, be spread when a person touches a surface that has flu viruses on it – a door handle, for instance – and then touches his or her nose or mouth.
The Flu Is Contagious
A person can spread the flu starting one day before he or she feels sick. Adults can continue to pass the flu virus to others for another three to seven days after symptoms start. Children can pass the virus for longer than seven days. Symptoms start one to four days after the virus enters the body. Some persons can be infected with the flu virus but have no symptoms. During this time, those persons can still spread the virus to others.
How To Know if You Have the Flu
Your respiratory illness might be the flu if you have sudden onset of body aches, fever, and respiratory symptoms, and your illness occurs during November through April (the usual flu season in the Northern Hemisphere). However, during this time, other respiratory illnesses can cause similar symptoms and flu can be caught at any time of the year. It is impossible to tell for sure if you have the flu based on symptoms alone. Doctors can perform tests to see if you have the flu if you are in the first few days of your illness.
What You Should Do If You Get the Flu
Influenza is caused by a virus, so antibiotics (like penicillin) don’t work to cure it. The best way to prevent the flu is to get an influenza vaccine (flu shot) each fall, before flu season.
Do Not Give Aspirin To a Child or Teenager Who Has the Flu
Never give aspirin to children or teenagers who have flu-like symptoms – and particularly fever – without first speaking to your doctor. Giving aspirin to children and teenagers who have influenza can cause a rare but serious illness called Reye syndrome. Children or teenagers with the flu should get plenty of rest, drink lots of liquids, and take medicines that contain no aspirin to relieve symptoms.
The Myth of the "Stomach Flu”
Many people use the term "stomach flu” to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. These symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria, or even parasites. While vomiting, diarrhea, and being nauseous or “sick to your stomach” can sometimes be related to the flu — particularly in children — these problems are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. The flu is a respiratory disease and not a stomach or intestinal disease.
Weekly Flu Update: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/diseases/flu/weekly.htm
Source: http://www.cdc.gov (Center of Disease Control Web site) contributed to this report.