Flu-related deaths in the state of California number 147 so far this season, reported the Director of the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Ron Chapman, on Friday. This number does not include an additional 44 deaths that are currently under investigation as being flu-related. If those cases are confirmed, the number of deaths due or related to the influenza virus in California residents under the age of 65 will rise to 191.
The 2012-2013 flu season logged 106 flu deaths, a total that has been reached this flu season in only one month. Whether the severity of its cases makes California an outlier is not fully known, because states are not obligated to report flu deaths to the CDC. A spokesman from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) said states and counties collect their data differently, implying that if data is collected in different ways, then collating it becomes more difficult.
The primary strain of influenza circulating in California and responsible for the 147 deaths there is H1N1, a strain of influenza A known as “swine flu.” In 2009, H1N1 caused a nationwide pandemic. Since the pandemic, it has continued to circulate as a seasonal flu virus, but never so widely as it has this season, according to the CDC. Measures were sought out to improve influenza monitoring after the 2009 pandemic, and it became required for counties in California to report all flu deaths in people under age 65.
Last year’s primary strain was H3N2, which has largely been replaced this year by the H1N1 strain. Dr. Olivia Kasirye, a Sacramento County Health Officer, said that H1N1 is different than other strains in that it causes severe disease in young and healthy people. Young people are one of the groups more susceptible to being infected with the H1N1 virus because they lack the immunity of prior exposure to the strain and often go without vaccinations. People over 64 are believed to have more immunity as a result of similar outbreaks that occurred decades before.
In Los Angeles County, the latest update from the Department of Public Health’s Influenza Watch shows activity as “still up, but leveling off,” with a slight decline in the number of positive flu tests and flu-related emergency department visits in recent weeks. However, across the nation in general. H1N1 is sending sufferers to the doctor at rates that are 50 percent higher than normal for flu-like symptoms, according to the head of the influenza surveillance and outbreak response team Lyn Finelli at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Finelli says that this is way above the norm, which signals that the U.S. is only halfway through flu season.
Health officials urge those groups who are highest at risk, including people with underlying health conditions, infants, pregnant women, and the elderly, to immediately contact their physician if they experience symptoms such as muscle, body, or headaches, fatigue, cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, or fever. Health officials note that Tamiflu and similar antivirals work best if they are taken within 48 hours of contracting the virus.
California’s first lady Anne Gust Brown called for residents to become vaccinated and was herself prompted to get her first flu shot “after reading about the heartbreaking story of Nancy Pinella.” Pinella was a 47-year-old Sacramento advertising executive and one of the 147 people in California who have died during the 2013-2014 flu season. The Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Dr. Jonathan Fielding is also urging people to be immunized, stating that there is time to do so because the flu is going to be around for months.
By Donna Westlund