Health officials: Flu causing severe illness, death in young adults


LITTLE ROCK — This year’s flu season is shaping up to be a severe one and is affecting young adults in higher numbers than usual, making it critical for people who have not obtained flu vaccinations to do so, state health officials said Monday.

Also Monday, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction said a female inmate had died after exhibiting flu-like symptoms and some inmates at the prison where she was being held were under quarantine.

During last year’s flu season, which was the worst Arkansas had seen in 35 years, 61 people died, 10 percent of them between the ages of 25 and 50, Dr. Dirk Haselow, state epidemiologist and the state Health Department’s medical director for communicable disease, said in a news conference at the department’s headquarters.

Haselow said the average age of Arkansans who died of the flu last season was 69. In contrast, of the 15 flu deaths reported in the state so far this season, seven, or nearly 50 percent, have been between the ages of 25 and 50; the average age of the victims has been 42.

He noted that some of the people who died had none of the pre-existing conditions that increase risk of death from the flu.

“People who are 25 to 50 need to get vaccinated now,” Haselow said.

State health officials have advised the major pharmaceutical companies that they are planning a second push for immunizations, and the companies have said they have or can get the necessary supply of vaccines, Haselow said. There are no plans at this time for a new round of free clinics, but people who cannot afford to pay for vaccinations can get them for free through the Health Department.

“If not for you, please get your shot for your loved ones and your colleagues. It very well may save your life,” Haselow said.

State Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson said Monday that inmate Nikki Rust, 42, died early Saturday at a Batesville hospital after exhibiting flu-like symptoms, though she did not test positive for the flu. Rust was an inmate at the McPherson Unit, a women’s prison in Newport.

Wilson said the prison system called in additional medical personnel over the weekend to screen the nearly 900 inmates at the prison. Two inmates appeared to have the flu and were being treated Monday in their housing area in the prison, she said.

That housing area and Rust’s have been isolated, meaning that the 500-plus inmates living there cannot enter common areas at the prison where they might expose other inmates to anything they have been exposed to, Wilson said.

Health Department spokesman Ed Barham said the department was working with prison officials to investigate the situation at the McPherson Unit. He said Monday it was too soon to say whether any of the affected inmates had the flu.