Flu season hitting working-age adults hardest

Jason Sickles
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FILE-This Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013 file photo shows vials of flu vaccine in Philadelphia. As the flu season winds down, health officials say it wasn't as bad as last year and the vaccine worked better. But younger adults were hit harder because of a surge of swine flu. Overall, hospitalization rates for the flu are only about half what they were last winter. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

At 6 foot 3 and 350 pounds, Tim Allen was an imposing figure. A man’s man, the Texan carved wood for fun and operated heavy construction equipment for a living.

So it came as a surprise when the flu quickly claimed the 52-year-old’s life in late December.

“If you looked at Tim, he always seemed like a big bear,” said Randal Allen, his older brother. “You think it takes a lot to bring down a bear, but it doesn't. It takes a little germ. In less than a month, he went from the flu to death.”

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this flu season has been particularly bad for young people and middle-aged adults like Tim Allen.

People between the ages of 18 and 64 have accounted for 61 percent of influenza hospitalizations, the CDC reported. Last flu season, that age group represented only about 35 percent of flu-related hospitalizations.

Exact numbers aren’t known, but flu deaths are believed to be significantly higher too. The CDC estimates that people ages 25 to 64 have accounted for about 60 percent of flu deaths this season. That’s compared with 18 percent, 30 percent and 47 percent for the three previous seasons.

This year’s dramatic rise is being linked to a resurgence of the H1N1 virus, the so-called swine flu responsible for a global pandemic in 2009.

“It’s back this year, and it’s hitting younger people hard,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said Thursday.

Frieden said the fact that only 1 in 3 young adults is getting vaccinated against the flu is to blame for the higher hospitalizations and deaths.

“It’s too low,” he said, noting the vaccination rate for seniors and children is nearly is two-thirds. “Any preventable death is a tragedy.”

Officials said the low vaccination rate among young people and middle-aged adults is consistent with previous years, but that many people that age are at greater risk because they have no immunity to a virus like H1N1.

Being vaccinated has reduced the chance of having to go to the doctor for the flu by about 60 percent this season, the CDC reported.

Allen doesn't know for sure, but said he doubts his brother got a flu shot.

“Knowing my brother, I would suspect that he did not,” he said. “He was worse than the rest of us about going to the doctor.”

The CDC said that 85 percent of working-age people hospitalized with the flu often have another underlying health concern. Allen said his brother’s death certificate lists obesity and congestive lung failure along with H1N1. He said decades of not wearing a mask on construction sites proved to be harmful for his brother.

“He definitely contributed to his poor health,” Allen said. “When he got the flu, he couldn't fight everything off. The virus just kind of did him in.”

While this season’s outbreak is only a fraction of what it was when H1N1 emerged in 2009, the CDC says the flu is killing at epidemic levels and remains widespread in 24 states. The season is expected to last for several more weeks.

“Influenza can make anyone very sick very fast, and it can kill,” Frieden said. “Vaccination is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself against the flu.”

A warning Allen hopes others heed.

“Tim would do for other people what he wouldn't do for himself, that’s part of the issue," he said. “We take our health far too casual. Preventive maintenance is definitely what we should all be seeking.”

Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).