H1N1 grips region

Don't panic, get vaccinated, officials say after six deaths linked to swine flu virus

Don't panic, get vaccinated, officials say after 6 swine flu deaths

H1N1 influenza virus
The H1N1 virus has claimed its first fatality in Travis County. CDC Influenza Laboratory/Wikipedia

Health officials have confirmed six deaths in the Houston area from the H1N1 virus  — the influenza strain that took countless lives during the global "swine flu" pandemic in 2009 and 2010.

Doctors at Conroe Regional Medical Center have reported eight cases of a illness that resembles the flu before quickly progressing to pneumonia and even organ failure. Of the original eight, four patients aged 41 to 65 have died from complications.

While a medical mystery at first, the lethal bug now is widely attributed to H1N1. 

While somewhat of a medical mystery at first, the lethal bug now is widely attributed to H1N1, which has been included in flu vaccines since the 2009 global outbreak. The four deceased patients are not believed to have been vaccinated.

KHOU Channel 11 says officials believe more than a dozen cases have occurred throughout Harris, Montgomery and Jefferson counties. During a Thursday afternoon conference call, area health leaders also noted two other fatalities in addition to those at Conroe Regional.

County leaders are working with the Centers for Disease Control and the Texas Department of Health as investigations and lab testing continue.

What you can do

Rita Obey, spokesperson for the Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services Department, tells CultureMap doctors are witnessing a busy-but-not-unusual flu season and that a "vast majority" of cases are related to H1N1, one of the nation's most common strains this year . . . But with regular flu precautions like hand-washing and vaccinations, there's no need to panic.

"H1N1 isn't necessarily worse than another other flu strain these days," she explains. "It's not like it was in 2009 when it was a new novel strain and people weren't prepared."

"T he best thing to do is get a flu shot, which protects against this current H1N1 strain."

Obey says that influenza viruses typically put young children and the elderly at the greatest risk, as well as people suffering from respiratory issues or kidney and liver disorders. But H1N1 differs from other strains in that it tends to target middle-aged people, particularly those with preexisting medical problems. Doctors are prescribing antivirals for all high-risk flu patients.

"If you haven't already, the best thing to do is get a flu shot, which protects against this current H1N1 strain. The more people get it, the less the flu will spread," she says.

"Beyond that, we recommend that people wash their hands regularly and distance themselves from those who are ill. We're also asking the public to stay home if they're sick, especially children."

For more information on how to stay safe during the 2013-14 influenza season, visit TexasFlu.org or the CDC's dedicated flu site.