Six Oklahomans 65 or older died last week from flu-related complications, bringing Oklahoma's flu-related death total to 14 since September, health officials said Thursday.
Last flu season, Oklahoma saw 10 residents die because of the flu. During the 2010-11 flu season, 26 residents died of flu-related complications, according to the state Health Department.
Since the start of this year's flu season in September, one Oklahoma County resident has died because of the flu, along with three residents in Tulsa County, three in Comanche County and two in Pittsburg County.
In its weekly flu update, the state Health Department reported 71 flu-related hospitalizations occurring from Jan. 16 to Jan. 22. Since the flu season began in September, 611 flu-related hospitalizations have been reported.
It's too soon to tell whether Oklahoma has reached its peak in flu activity, said Laurence Burnsed, director of the communicable disease division at the state Health Department.
“We are in that time of year where we typically will see a peak, but as with last week and the next several weeks, it's still unknown,” Burnsed said. “What we do know is that we're seeing a high level of influenza activity, which we typically see this time of year.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports flu activity is high across most of the United States. The flu is a contagious respiratory illness with symptoms including fever, cough, sore throat and body aches, according to the CDC.
Because the flu season can continue until April, residents still have time to get their flu shots and receive some protection, Burnsed said.
At highest risk
Young children and adults 65 and older are most at risk for developing serious complications related to the flu, he said. Adults in this age category who suffer from diabetes, heart disease or other chronic conditions are especially at risk.
It's important to call first, because the location might temporarily be out of the adult flu shot. This year's flu shot is 62 percent effective, according to the CDC.
This month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved FluBlok, a trivalent flu vaccine made using insect cells. A trivalent vaccine is a vaccine with three components.
FluBlok represents a shift in the way flu shots are made. The flu shot that's widely available this flu season was made by growing the flu virus in eggs. This is a process that can take up to six months sometimes, not ideal if the U.S. were to face a flu pandemic.
But FluBlok uses insect cells to create a vaccine. Although the technology is new to flu vaccine production, it is used to make vaccines that have been approved by the FDA to prevent other infectious diseases, according to the FDA.
“This approval represents a technological advance in the manufacturing of an influenza vaccine,” Dr. Karen Midthun, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a news release. “The new technology offers the potential for faster startup of the vaccine manufacturing process in the event of a pandemic, because it is not dependent on an egg supply or on availability of the influenza virus.”
Less effective option
When studied, FluBlok was found to be about 44.6 percent effective against all circulating influenza strains, not just the strains that matched the strains included in the vaccine, according to the FDA.
Professor Gillian Air, who has studied the flu for the past 30 years, said FluBlok seems less effective than other vaccines, but apparently not enough to concern the FDA.
There's a movement to get away from eggs and use something that would speed up flu vaccine production said Air, a professor in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
But it's still unknown how quickly the company that produces FluBlok will be able to produce the shot, she said.
“Until it's on the market, we really don't know,” Air said. “They've made trial batches, and they've tested them extensively in 2,000 people, but that's not quite the same as making a vaccine for the entire country.”