As flu season continues, Washtenaw County has experienced a spike in influenza cases, as well as several deaths.

According to Shantell Kirkendoll, senior public relations representative for the University of Michigan Health System, UMHS has reported 13 flu-related deaths for the 2014-2015 season as of Wednesday.

At University Health Service, Chief Health Officer Robert Winfield said physicians have seen 156 flu-related cases.

The number of patients in December alone was 89. Winfield said the number of cases in January is not yet available, but noted the figure was lower than December’s.

Last month, UMHS implemented a policy encouraging people with flu-like symptoms to avoid visiting patients at the hospital.

Eden Wells, clinical associate professor of epidemiology, said recent flu seasons have been unusually mild, unlike the current cycle. She said many people weren’t accustomed to the flu posing a serious problem.

The effectiveness of this year’s vaccine for the H3N2 virus — about 23 percent — presents a unique element to the current flu season. According to the Centers for Disease Control, this is approximately 50 percent less effective than in usual years.

In Washtenaw County, eight patients have died from the flu this season. The death toll is lower for the county than at UMHS because the health system treats patients from several counties.

According to the CDC, this year has been the most fatal flu season nationally for people older than 65 years old since the CDC began collecting data on influenza in 2005.

Wells said the vaccine is designed to address several different virus strains compared to the previous year’s version. She said flu experts at the World Health Organization conduct a number of studies around the world based on those strains to try and predict which strains will circulate in the fall.

“You start making the vaccine, and it takes six months to make the vaccine,” she said. “Sometimes that (flu) virus loves to kind of slightly mutate throughout the year — that what ended up finally circulating this fall was not-quite matched to the vaccine that was made in February”.

In an e-mail interview, Epidemiology Prof. Arnold Monto wrote that the disease changed in the Northern Hemisphere during the summer.

“A lot of work is going on to develop a vaccine that does not have to be redesigned for each vaccine strain,” Monto wrote. “This past year’s experience shows why that is important.”

He noted that Ann Arbor residents tend to vaccinate more than national average, but said that’s been less effective this year because the vaccine hasn’t worked as well.

“We are involved in several studies which look at the occurrence of influenza in the Ann Arbor area, and how well the vaccine is working,” Monto wrote. “This has been a bad influenza season in our area, with a lot of illnesses and hospitalizations with type A (H3N2) influenza”.

Still, Wells said vaccination remains the best tool to prevent the flu. She noted the message has been well-received locally due to the intensity of this year’s influenza season and the recent return of the measles. In recent weeks, the reappearance of measles has sparked discussion on the merits of vaccination.

“We are hearing more now from people, parents, community members who are actually taking up the banner for vaccine,” Wells said. “So, I think that’s a good thing.”

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