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Flu hitting young adults in NC hardest this season

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Arika Carden died Jan. 12 after contracting the flu in December. She was 39 years old. Arika Carden died Jan. 12 after contracting the flu in December. She was 39 years old.
DURHAM, N.C. -

"It still doesn't seem real. You don't think of people our age dying from the flu," said Lori Goans.

Friends since high school, Goans and Arika Carden stayed close over the years.

"Arika was just amazing," Goans said. "She was like the all-time best mom you could ever be."

But right after Christmas, Lori says Arika caught the flu. It put her in the hospital, but Lori fully expected her friend to be back on her feet soon.

"I don' think she had a flu shot," Goans explained. "She was doing better, and then it was maybe two or three days after the last positive post that things started to go back downhill again."

Within days, on Jan. 12, Arika passed away. She was just 39 years old.

"It was just total shock," Goans said. "I told her all the time that she was one of the strongest people I've ever known."

Flu deaths by region

As of Feb. 25, 74 people have died from the flu in North Carolina. Most of them lived in the Midwestern part of the state.

"North Carolina has unfortunately had its fair share of deaths," said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, assistant professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at Duke University Medical Center.

But more surprising than where these deaths occurred, is the age group of people being affected.

"The average age of admission was under 30," Wolfe explained.

Last year in North Carolina, the majority of flu deaths were people over the age of 65. But this year's numbers show a major shift. Of the 74 deaths, 30 have been people between the ages of 25 to 49.

Wolfe said part of the change has to do with the strand of virus.

"I think this year the real big thing is it's been a real reversion back to H1N1," Wolfe said.

But why are the young and the healthy being affected greater than any other age group?

Wolfe said it's hard to tell, but it seems many older patients have seen the H1N1 virus before, giving their immune system a better chance to fight it off.

But he said another striking detail: "People who were most unwell tended to be, here at Duke at least, the ones who were not vaccinated, and that was a surprising difference to us."

WNCN checked the numbers state-wide. Of the cases recorded, 82 percent of deaths were people who were not vaccinated.

For some, the fear of the flu shot is more than just the needle. Many ask: Can you get the flu from a flu shot?

"No, it's a clear no," Wolfe explained.

It takes the flu shot a good 10 to 14 days to fully kick in and doctors say it generally reduces your chance of getting the flu by almost 67 percent.

What researchers have now discovered is that the initial prevention of the flu isn't necessarily the most important benefit of the flu shot. More so, it's keeping you out of the ICU if you do catch the virus.

"A two thirds reduce chance of getting the flu is better than nothing, but if you're in that one-third group and you still get sick, you've reduced your chance of getting critically sick," Wolfe said.

So how do you know when it's time to move beyond the tea and honey and see a doctor?

"If you feel like you're doing OK but then three, four, five days into it you really start feeling more sick again. You're the person who should come see a doctor," Wolfe explained.

While we are approaching the end of the flu season, Wolfe said it's not too late to get that shot.

"When I can sit here with a vaccine that reduces the chance of that, to me it's a no brainer," he said.

For Goans, it's a choice she said she no longer has to think about.

"I really hope this makes people more aware of how serious this is," she said. "You just never thought that could happen, especially to someone our age and someone like [Arika] -- so full of life."

Wolfe said there are three main reasons we have a flu season:

  1. Certain strands of the flu virus tend to grow and develop better during weather conditions found in the colder months;
  2. During the colder months, people are usually more bundled up together, making it easier to pass along the flu virus;
  3. People usually develop more mucus during the colder months, giving the virus a better chance of attaching itself.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

Jonathan Rodriguez

Jonathan Rodriguez is an investigative reporter and member of the WNCN Investigates team. His storytelling specialty is connecting the dots to get to the truth, with a goal of delivering results for our community. If you have something you’d like WNCN to investigate, contact Jonathan.

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