BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — Emily Nemetz started 2013 as a victim of one of the worst flu seasons in a decade.
Local experts said a large number of cases combined with a more virulent influenza strain makes this the second-worst flu season in the last 10 to 15 years, behind the pandemic of 2009-2010.
It's not just that it seems like a worse flu season because it follows two mild years, it is one, said Dr. Michael Collins, medical director for health departments in Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties.
"In general the symptoms are somewhat stronger than what we've had the last two years; it's lasting a long time and being pretty miserable for people," Collins said. "It's widespread and has been pretty savage everyplace."
The flu barreled into Nemetz, 28, of Lake Ann, on Jan. 2. Soon she had a temperature of 102 degrees.
"I literally did not get out of bed for 48 hours," she said. "I was sick. I was down for three or four days, not leaving the house, not answering phone calls."
A chair-lift operator at Crystal Mountain, Nemetz said it took her a good week to throw off the bug and regain her appetite, but she remained congested for almost three weeks and lost her voice.
Nemetz caught the respiratory virus at what appears to have been the peak of new infections, based on health department reports both locally and nationally. Those same reports have shown a slight drop in new cases over the last two weeks.
"We're still seeing plenty of cases here locally, but it looks like it's plateaued in the last week or two, said Dr. David Martin, an infectious disease specialist at Munson Medical Center.
Martin said it's one of the more severe years for the flu, based on the number of flu-related deaths nationwide.
"We have not had any adults die here, but we've had several come close and in the intensive care unit for quite a while," Martin said. "It really destroys the lungs and they can't breathe. It acts a lot like pneumonia and the lungs just fail."
The flu also sent some children into intensive care, Martin said.
One suspected flu-related pediatric death occurred in the region, Collins said, but it has not yet been confirmed.
If confirmed, it would be the fifth pediatric death reported in Michigan.
Both Collins and Martin said the flu vaccine remains the best defense against the virus.
The vaccine typically proves between 60 percent and 70 percent effective at preventing the flu.
An early study by the Centers for Disease Control puts the effectiveness at 62 percent. It's more effective for young people, less effective for the elderly. But it's about 80 to 90 percent effective at substantially reducing the symptoms, Collins said.
Those who suspect they have the flu should contact their physician, who likely can prescribe an antiviral medication over the phone and save a visit that's likely to spread the virus, Martin said.
Nemetz, who said she hadn't had the flu in years, passed on getting a vaccine and relied on natural remedies and lots of tea and juice to beat the bug.
"I'm a natural remedy kind of a girl," she said.