LITTLE ROCK (AP) — The Arkansas Health Department recorded nearly 30 more flu-related deaths over the past week, bringing the total number this season to 122.
Department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel told state lawmakers that the total figure as of Monday is the highest in two decades and is likely to keep rising over the next several weeks. Two of those deaths were children, and most were elderly people.
"Most people who get the flu end up getting damage in their lungs that then allows them to have a bacterial infection overgrow and cause a pneumonia that kills them," said Dr. Dirk Haselow, an epidemiologist with the Health Department.
Before Monday, Arkansas' deadliest season since 2000 was during the 2014-15 season with 110 flu-related deaths.
Department Director Nate Smith said the majority of flu-related deaths are reported after the peak of transmission, which hasn't arrived yet. The flu season ends in May.
"This season continues to surprise us," Haselow said. "Our levels appear to be on par with what was seen in 1968. One of the worldwide pandemics of the flu."
The dominant flu strain this season is H3N2, which usually causes more severe illness than other types. Smith said the flu vaccine is still the best way to protect against infection despite being less effective against H3N2.
"I'm surprised to continue to meet people who have not yet gotten their flu shot," he said.
The Health Department has recorded more than 36,000 positive flu tests in Arkansas since Oct. 1. Smith said those who haven't received a flu shot yet should do so "immediately," and that those at high risk of developing complications from the flu should consider getting prescription medication.