New numbers from local counties suggest influenza is spreading in Metro Detroit and the H1N1 strain is largely to blame.
The Michigan Department of Community Health does not require reporting of adult influenza deaths, but statewide, at least six adult deaths have been reported as of Dec. 21, 2013, along with one infant death. Currently, state health officials say more than 90 percent of positive influenza specimens at their labs are the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus.
It's important to note, the actual number of influenza cases is likely far higher than the number of confirmed cases, since most adults aren't even tested and others recover at home without seeking treatment. But the numbers do give a snapshot of what local health departments are seeing.
According to the Wayne County Health Department, flu cases have been increasing slowly over the last six weeks.
From Oct. 1, 2013 until now, Wayne County has had 250 lab-confirmed flu cases, 110 of which have been in the last couple of weeks. Those numbers don't include cases in the city of Detroit, which has its own health department.
The health department says most of the Wayne County cases are the H1N1 variety and involve previously-healthy middle-aged adults under age 65 who were not vaccinated.
In Washtenaw County, health officials are reporting a rapid increase in the number of individuals seeking treatment for the flu. More than 50 residents have been hospitalized, and 30 of those hospitalizations have occurred in the last two weeks. Health officials say many of the hospitalized patients are younger adults. The vaccination status of all of the hospitalized patients is not known; however, in the cases where it is known, most are unvaccinated.
Most confirmed cases have the H1N1 strain, which is included in the current seasonal vaccine.
“People think that if they are young and healthy, they can just deal with the flu. Unfortunately, that isn’t always true. This year’s flu is hitting the 18-59 year old group particularly hard, just as it did in 2009. Fortunately, this time around we have a good vaccine. I urge everyone who can to get it,” says Dr. Alice Penrose, Medical Director for Washtenaw County Public Health.
The rapid increase in cases has some experts worried.
"We're concerned in Michigan that we may be starting to see the beginning of a very serious flu season, and we're seeing it early enough that quite a few people haven't yet been vaccinated," said Dr. Matthew Davies, a professor of pediatrics, internal medicine and public policy at the University of Michigan. "When we see a pattern like we have over the past couple weeks, based on our experiences in the past, especially with H1N1 in 2009, we are concerned that this is just the beginning of a longer wave of flu cases that may get much worse before it gets better."
The Oakland County Health Department says it is seeing an increase in the number of people who have decided to get a flu shot in the past two weeks.
Health officials report they are hearing about several cases of patients hospitalized with influenza and that many cases are caused by the H1N1 strain.
The message they want to share is that people who haven't been vaccinated should get a flu shot now. The flu vaccine is well-matched this year to the strains that are circulating in the community.
Health officials in all three counties stress that flu vaccines are recommended for everyone six months of age and older.
It is not too late to get vaccinated. Flu seasons typically peak in February, but cases generally continue well into April and sometimes beyond.
Experts expect influenza will spread even more quickly in Michigan as students head back to school.