Get the flu jab, pleads widower

MATT STEWART AND BRONWYN TORRIE
Last updated 05:00 30/07/2012
LOVING LIFE: Mark McIlroy and his wife Catherine  on one of their last overseas trips together,  at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, in 2010.
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LOVING LIFE: Mark McIlroy and his wife Catherine on one of their last overseas trips together, at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida, in 2010.

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After watching his fit and healthy wife die within days of getting a tickle in her throat, Mark McIlroy is urging people to get vaccinated against the flu.

A week before she died, Catherine McIlroy was practising pilates and helping her husband of 30 years plan his 50th birthday.

The flu began as a tickle in her throat but five days later her organs shut down.

The fit, healthy 49-year-old mother of two exercised regularly and had no underlying health problems. She died last Monday after contracting the A(H3N2) flu strain, and was not vaccinated against flu as she had a "morbid fear of needles", her husband said.

Mr McIlroy, a Karori cleaning and gardening franchisor, has since paid for nine members of his extended family to be inoculated.

Mrs McIlroy was the first fit and healthy person to die from the influenza virus in Wellington this year, Capital & Coast District Health Board Infectious Diseases specialist Tim Blackmore said.

"It's very uncommon for a healthy person with no pre-existing illnesses to get so sick from the flu, but we certainly see it, every year it happens.

"We've had several older patients die, all of them were very frail . . . but nobody like Mrs McIlroy."

Had she been vaccinated, Mrs McIlroy "probably" would not have got the flu or if she had, it would not have been so severe, Mr Blackmore said.

This year's vaccine covers three strains, including A(H3N2). About 70 per cent of people who had it would be protected, Mr Blackmore said.

Mrs McIlroy began to go downhill after developing a "tickle in the throat" on the Wednesday before she died, and was confined to the couch by midday with aches, chills and sweats.

She was "reasonably good" the next day and got four hours' bedrest before celebrating Mr McIlroy's 50th birthday at a restaurant with friends and the couple's son Oliver, but then began vomiting.

By Friday she had developed a severe headache and "could barely walk down the hallway". By Saturday she could not keep down food so Mr McIlroy called Healthline, which arranged for an ambulance to take her to Wellington Hospital. She was later transferred to the intensive care unit, and when Mr McIlroy left his wife that night, she was still lucid.

The next morning, he had a phone call from doctors saying her condition had deteriorated. She was then wired to a machine to help her breathe and was stabilised for a brief time, but developed pneumonia and septic shock.

Her internal organs shut down and she was pronounced dead on Monday.

"I was surprised, stunned and shocked because she was fit and healthy," Mr McIlroy said. "I just think it's really, really important people know they should get inoculated."

Johnsonville GP Richard Tyler said infections were tracking at a normal rate for the winter period.

The flu could strike fit and healthy people, even those who had rested, because the virus could make its way into the heart muscle.

Mr McIlroy described his wife as "outgoing, full-on" and someone who loved life.

A keen gardener, she was very family oriented, and took pride in decorating their Cooper St home at Christmas with her husband and children, who are both university students.

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Mrs McIlroy's funeral, at St Paul's Cathedral in Wellington on Friday, was attended by about 400 mourners.

Latest Environmental Science Research figures show flu rates in the Capital & Coast region are below the national average.

Anecdotally, there had been the expected surge in the flu this winter, but laboratory tests costing up to $90 had been reined in, Mr Blackmore said.

In July, 25 people tested positive for influenza and of those, 20 had H3N2. The remainder had the H1N1, or swine flu, strain.

Nationally, influenza was tracking at "normal" levels, ESR and National Influenza Centre virologist Sue Huang said.

More than 400 people die each year in New Zealand directly or indirectly because of influenza.

MORE FREE FLU SHOTS

The Health Ministry has extended free seasonal flu vaccinations by a month, until the end of August.

The immunisation is free for people at high risk of more severe disease and complications, including pregnant women, people aged 65 and over, and anyone with ongoing health conditions such as heart disease, strokes, diabetes, respiratory disease, kidney disease and most cancers.

The vaccination is available for other people for between $25 and $30.

So far this year 975,550 shots have been distributed, compared with 990,670 for the same period last year.

Deputy Director of Public Health Darren Hunt said the vaccination covered the flu strains that were now being reported.

There had been an increase in flu cases in the past few weeks and although the numbers were not unexpected, the situation could change quickly, he said.

"While the rate of flu overall in New Zealand is similar to past flu seasons, hospitals are treating people who have severe influenza, which is a reminder that it can be a serious illness."

People with flu symptoms should call their GP or Healthline for advice, and those who were sick should stay at home.

- The Dominion Post

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