The first two Utahns to die of influenza this season were between the ages of 35 and 64 — a group that so far is taking the brunt of the H1N1, or swine flu, strain now prevalent.
The Salt Lake County Health Department confirmed the deaths Thursday, but because of privacy laws could not provide other details such as whether they were men, women or had underlying health problems.
No Utah children have died of the flu, said Rachelle Boulton, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. Federal law requires states to track only flu deaths that occur in children under age 19.
But 237 people have been hospitalized throughout the state, and 35 percent of those cases were severe enough to require intensive care — a signal that this year’s flu is severe for many, Boulton said. “It’s incredibly high,” she said.
Ilene Risk, Salt Lake County’s epidemiologist, said the county is seeing a disproportionate share of young and middle-aged adults hospitalized for the flu.
It reflects the same pattern seen in 2009, when H1N1 first swept the country.
“Sometimes that’s the group that feels the healthiest,” and is least likely to be get immunizations, Risk said.
The vast majority of the 167 hospitalized in Salt Lake County for the flu so far were 25 to 49 years old, Risk said.
The majority had other health issues, such as chronic lung problems, cardiovascular issues or diabetes, that make it hard to fight the flu. But a third of this season’s flu patients, Risk said, had no underlying health issues.
A number of pregnant women have been hospitalized; that population also suffered disproportionately in 2009, Boulton said.
“That’s a group we certainly want to get vaccinations,” she said.
It’s not entirely clear why older people are less vulnerable to H1N1, the prevalent strain this season, but it could be that they built up immunity when exposed decades ago to a similar virus, Boulton said.
The flu season typically peaks in January or February, so it’s not too late to get immunized, Boulton and Risk said.
Of those hospitalized so far, only 15 percent statewide and 17 percent in Salt Lake County were vaccinated against the flu.
This season’s vaccination provides good coverage against the strains that are circulating, Risk said.
While there are other nasty bugs afoot in Utah, severe aches and pains, fatigue, chills and sudden onset of symptoms are characteristics of the flu, but not a common cold.
The family of a 47-year-old Tooele woman cited the flu as the cause of her death in her late December obituary, but that couldn’t be verified by state health officials.
Find a flu shot
Vaccinations are available at Salt Lake County Health Department Public Health Centers. Find locations at www.slcohealth.org. Call 385-468-4152 to schedule the required appointment.
You can also try the Utah Vaccine Locator offered by the Utah Department of Health at http://www.immunize-utah.org/apps/flu.