Twelve patients at the University Hospital are receiving treatment in the intensive care unit after contracting the H1N1 influenza virus — the same strain seen in the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic.
Dr. Sandro Cinti, professor of infectious diseases, said several of the patients have been placed on an advanced form of life support known as ECMO — extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. While the procedure is intended to give patients more time to recover from their disease, Cinti said it is both “very serious” and a “last resort” for the most seriously afflicted patients.
All twelve patients are currently breathing with the help of mechanical ventilators and receiving aggressive treatment to prevent infection while doctors treat the underlying influenza.
The patients range in age from 22 to 58 and most were considered healthy prior to contracting the disease. This range is consistent with 2009 infection patterns, which showed younger demographics infected at a higher rate than the elderly, who were most likely exposed to a similar form of the disease many years ago.
H1N1 was most widely publicized during 2009 — prior to the creation of a vaccine — when it killed over 470 individuals in the U.S. Despite fading from the public spotlight, the disease has been present in every flu season since the pandemic, Cinti said.
“Last year it was just at a very low level, but this year it’s the main flu going around,” Cinti said.
Flu season has suddenly picked up speed in Oregon.
H1N1 is back, and it’s as strong as ever.
But this year, unlike the pandemic year of 2009, there’s a difference: The flu vaccine protects against the H1N1 strain of influenza.
Flu season came on late at the end of 2013. The week of Christmas, 81 people were admitted to Oregon hospitals for the flu. There were only 18 cases two weeks earlier. Most have H1N1.
“We’ll see increasing amounts of the disease for the next few weeks before it peaks,” said Dr. Joe Berees, a flu expert for the Centers for Disease Control. “More people will get it and more people will get severely ill.”
H1N1 was called the “swine flu” in 2009, when a worldwide pandemic killed nearly 300,000 people. It’s a combination of swine, bird and human influenza strains.
But H1N1 is also different because it doesn’t just go after people with weakened immune systems, or the elderly and very young. A disproportionate number of people infected with H1N1 are young and healthy.
“A lot of these younger people may not be vaccinated,” said Jonathan Modie, a spokesman for the Oregon Public Health division.
That means more people might be carriers and have the potential to spread it around.
But this year, the flu vaccine protects from H1N1, and it’s not too late to get vaccinated. Yet roughly half the U.S. population hasn’t gotten a flu shot yet.
“It lowers you risk of getting sick, getting hospitalized and even dying of the flu by about 50 to 75 percent,” said Dr. Berees.
If you choose not to get a flu shot, studies have shown there are a few things you can do to keep from getting sick. First, stay away from sick people and wash your hands regularly. Perhaps even more importantly, don’t let your hands touch your face.
A recent report also found a few other things could help: get plently of sleep, eat lots of produce, exercise regularly, and stay hydrated by drinking lots of water.
Since the current flu vaccine is designed to protect individuals against the H1N1 flu strain, doctors at UMHS speculate the 12 individuals currently in the ICU did not receive the vaccine, or were infected before it was able to take effect.
“This is a preventable disease, so people should get vaccinated,” Cinti said. “This is another example of what happens when the population doesn’t take recommendations from public health and get vaccinated.”