Vaping illness deaths climb to 33 as outbreak spreads; doctors worry flu season could make it worse

Health, Fitness & Food

A man uses a vape as he walks on Broadway in New York City, U.S., September 9, 2019.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

The number of fatalities continues to rise as a deadly vaping illness sweeps across the country, taking 33 lives and making 1,479 people sick so far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

The new cases — up from 26 deaths and 1,299 illnesses a week ago — show that U.S. officials are no where closer to getting the outbreak under control since it emerged as a public health threat in July. 

“This is extremely complicated and difficult. It’s fatal or potentially fatal with half of the cases requiring intensive care,” CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat told House lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday

Almost all of the patients who get sick end up hospitalized, the CDC has previously said. An overwhelming number of the victims are young men. Among the 1,358 patients where the CDC has age and gender data, 79% are under 35 years old with the median age of 23. Some 70% of the victims are men and the youngest one is 13 years old.

The CDC is tentatively calling the illness EVALI, short for e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury. Most patients have reported vaping THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, though health officials still have not identified what exactly in the vaping products is making people sick.

Of the 849 patients the CDC has data on what they vaped, 78% said they used THC with or without nicotine. Roughly 10% of the patients reported using just nicotine e-cigarettes. 

The investigation is incredibly complex, as it relies mostly on interviewing patients and testing products. Paper records and fax machines have slowed federal authorities’ efforts, Schuchat testified at the hearing. The agency is now 

Doctors urge anyone who vapes to talk to their health provider, especially if they are experiencing any symptoms of the illness, such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting. Knowing whether a patient vapes and what they use is crucial to making an accurate diagnosis.

The CDC warned physicians that people who develop EVALI may be at risk of developing severe complications of the flu or other respiratory illnesses circulating during the winter.

“It’s going to be a very challenging winter,” Schuchat said at the hearing.

Schuchat said the CDC expects the outbreak total to continue to spread, with new cases being reported every day.

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