Tommy Levitt is in the hospital.
As this is being written, he is in intensive care with a ventilator tube down his throat, although he should be out of ICU by the time you read it.
Levitt, who lives in Johnson City, is an example of a trend the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was calling “worrisome” at about the same time he was realizing he needed serious medical care.
The trend begins with a normally healthy adult who “never gets the flu”, so he doesn’t get flu shots...and gets the H1N1 flu instead. He recovers from the flu, then has this cough, shortness of breath, perhaps a little fever. In a few more days, it’s full-blown pneumonia.
Just like Tommy’s.
Thanks to the swine flu, pneumonia cases appear to be running about three times their usual number. And like the other effects of this flu, it appears to be hitting younger victims harder.
Dr Anne Schuchat at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “We’re seeing an increase in serious pneumococcal infections around the country. It turns out that in the 2009 pandemic we’re seeing it among younger persons.”
In a normal seasonal flu year, she said, we’d expect to see some pneumonia patients by this time of year, almost all of them over the age of 65. This year, we see triple the usual number, mostly in patients under 65. Like Tommy.
Pneumococcus is caused by a bacteria. There are about 75 different strains of it, but only five or six commonly circulating, and the plentiful, easy-to-find vaccine protects against 23 different strains.
“Pandemics put us at risk for not just flu problems, but also bacterial pneumonia,” Schuchat explained.
The flu virus invades the body and weakens it, leaving the door standing open for the real killers, like pneumonia, to get in. The swine flu has had a knack for burrowing deep into the lungs, and when pneumonia follows along behind it, it makes for a very dangerous disease.
H1N1 virus can damage the lining of the respiratory tract and make it easy for bacteria like pneumonia to start a secondary infection. With children, it’s more likely to be staph infections.
The good news is that the vaccine is readily available from doctors, pharmacies and even groceries, said Schuchat. And unlike flu vaccine, it does not have to be taken every year.
“Only 25% of high risk adults under age 65 have gotten the pneumonia vaccine,” she concluded. “So sort out whether you’re in one of those high risk groups and talk to your doctor or ask your pharmacist whether you can be vaccinated.”
As for Tommy, he is expected to recover from his double pneumonia and be home soon. But it was nip and tuck for a while.