Twelve patients at the University Hospital are receiving treatment in the intensive care unit after contracting the H1N1 influenza virus — the same strain seen in the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic.

Dr. Sandro Cinti, professor of infectious diseases, said several of the patients have been placed on an advanced form of life support known as ECMO — extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. While the procedure is intended to give patients more time to recover from their disease, Cinti said it is both “very serious” and a “last resort” for the most seriously afflicted patients.

All twelve patients are currently breathing with the help of mechanical ventilators and receiving aggressive treatment to prevent infection while doctors treat the underlying influenza.

The patients range in age from 22 to 58 and most were considered healthy prior to contracting the disease. This range is consistent with 2009 infection patterns, which showed younger demographics infected at a higher rate than the elderly, who were most likely exposed to a similar form of the disease many years ago.

H1N1 was most widely publicized during 2009 — prior to the creation of a vaccine — when it killed over 470 individuals in the U.S. Despite fading from the public spotlight, the disease has been present in every flu season since the pandemic, Cinti said.

“Last year it was just at a very low level, but this year it’s the main flu going around,” Cinti said.

Since the current flu vaccine is designed to protect individuals against the H1N1 flu strain, doctors at UMHS speculate the 12 individuals currently in the ICU did not receive the vaccine, or were infected before it was able to take effect.

“This is a preventable disease, so people should get vaccinated,” Cinti said. “This is another example of what happens when the population doesn’t take recommendations from public health and get vaccinated.”

Although UMHS usually sees several critical flu cases each year, Cinti said 12 patients is an unusual occurrence. In addition, the flu season is not expected to hit its peak for another couple of weeks, meaning more cases could be admitted.

This year’s flu season, which started slightly later than in the past, will likely extend into February and potentially further, Cinti said.

The University accepts complex referrals from across the region, which may have contributed to the high number of critical cases.

“That’s one of the reasons we may be seeing more sick patients is that we are a referral center from all over the state and from other states,” Cinti said. “This particular procedure, this machine is really unique to just a few centers in the state.”

ECMO was used in a similar context in 2009 to treat critical patients. Although it wasn’t originally designed for this purpose, it has been used to successfully treat a small number of extreme cases.

“By the time you’re on ECMO, you’re pretty sick and your chances of survival or rather low,” Cinti said.

Cinti advises individuals to take protective measures, such as staying home if sick, to prevent spreading the flu to other individuals. UMHS has implemented several reminders and restrictions for visitors to the health system to protect healthy patients at the hospital.

Information from the University Health Service about flu vaccination availability can be found here.

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