Influenza (flu) normally strikes seniors and young children more intensely. But this season’s strain, a type of swine flu, has resulted in a virulent epidemic that has hit adults particularly hard in California.
State public health officials announced that there were 147 flu-related deaths so far this season among those under age 65, including four children. There are 44 additional deaths they are investigating, according to Dr. Ron Chapman, director of California’s Department of Public Health. By this time last year, only 14 people in that demographic had died from the flu in California. The year before that, the state reported 106 deaths.
California isn’t the only area dealing with a severe flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates all 50 states have confirmed cases of the flu. Nearly half of the U.S. is reporting a widespread population ill with the flu. Southern states, particularly Texas, have high infection rates.
Flu season typically runs from October through March, with a peak during the winter. An estimated 5 to 20 percent of U.S. population contracts seasonal flu, a respiratory illness, in a normal year. Symptoms typically include fever, a cough, sore throat, headache and joint pain. Complications, which usually hit seniors and those under age five worse, can include pneumonia, dehydration, ear or sinus infections and a worsening of any existing chronic health problems.
While the flu season has hit hard in California and other states, it would have been worse if fewer people had gotten flu vaccines. The CDC estimates that half of Americans were vaccinated this year.
The CDC notes that past vaccines have made a significant impact in the severity of flu seasons. For example, they estimate that vaccinations reduced the number of flu cases last year by 6.6 million and prevented 79,000 hospitalizations. Nearly two-thirds of the prevented hospitalizations have been children under age five and seniors, two of the populations that traditionally suffer hardest from the flu.
The flu vaccine, like the flu strain circulating, varies each year. This year’s vaccine has proven to be effective. While it is not a guarantee that recipients cannot catch the flu, those who are vaccinated typically have less severe cases.
Even though flu season is going strong, public health officials still encourage people to get vaccinated. As Dr. Chapman noted, vaccination is the best defense. But, those who need vaccines should not delay since the vaccine takes two weeks to be effective and the flu is spreading rapidly.
Flu vaccines are widely available this year through local health clinics, large chain stores with pharmacies, doctor’s offices and other locations.
Beside a vaccine, the primary measure recommended as prevention for any virus is washing and sanitizing hands regularly. If around someone ill, regularly sanitize telephones, remote controls, bannisters, faucets and other surfaces that may get contaminated. A surgical mask is also a good idea and now being required at major hospitals, like Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, for anyone visiting a patient. The flu season has hit adults hard this year and proven to be deadly in several areas, particularly California, so any effective ways to prevent the flu should be employed.
By Dyanne Weiss