- Associated Press - Monday, January 13, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas health officials on Monday urged residents to get vaccinated for influenza, warning that this year’s flu strain is disproportionately targeting young adults with no underlying medical conditions.

Meanwhile, a women’s prison in northeast Arkansas canceled visiting hours after a 42-year-old inmate died Saturday after suffering from flu-like symptoms.

Nikki Rust, an inmate at the McPherson Unit, died Saturday, Arkansas Department of Correction spokeswoman Shea Wilson said. Rust, who was in prison on a first-degree battery conviction, did not test positive for the flu, but additional tests are pending, Wilson said.

“Because of her death, we isolated the housing area where she lived and canceled visitation as a precaution,” Wilson said. “We called in additional medical staff over the weekend to screen the prison population, which is close to 900, as a precautionary measure.”

Two inmates tested positive for flu and were being treated in the prison’s infirmary, Wilson said. Flu shots are available for inmates, but Rust chose not to get vaccinated this season, she said.

Seven of the state’s 15 deaths have occurred in people who were 25 to 50 years old, said Dr. Dirk Haselow, the state’s epidemiologist. What’s perplexing is that many of the victims fall outside of groups that are normally most vulnerable, Haselow said,

“We are seeing people in the 20s, 30s and 40s having very severe illness from the flu and some dying,” Haselow said. “Many of these individuals have had no underlying medical conditions and have died rapidly.”

The state estimates that about 650,000 Arkansans between the ages of 25 and 50 haven’t been vaccinated for the flu.

“We can’t stress enough how critical it is for all individuals to get vaccinated - especially if you’re in this age group,” Dr. Nate Smith, director of the Arkansas Department of Health, said in a statement. “We know the flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, but it can truly mean the difference between a mild to moderate illness and death.”


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