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Flu cases spreading nationally as officials promote vaccination

POSTED January 18, 2013 10:01 p.m.

This year’s flu season is hitting the population harder than expected and is taking a particularly harsh toll on the elderly, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“It’s shaping up to be a worse than average season and a bad season particularly for the elderly,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Friedman in a teleconference Friday.

The CDC started seeing flu cases earlier than usual this season. Flu season typically begins in October and peaks in activity in January and February. Most of the reported cases have tested positive for the H3N2 strain, which is one of the viruses included in the vaccine.

Nationally, influenza-like illness is down slightly this week from last, from 4.8 percent to 4.3 percent, but some parts of the country, particularly in the West, are showing increases, according to the CDC. Forty-eight states are reporting widespread geographic flu activity. Hospitalization rates for people 65 and older have been increasing sharply over the last few weeks, reaching a level of 82 per 100,000.

“Seasonal influenza always takes the heaviest toll on seniors when it comes to deaths, particularly during seasons when H3N2 is the predominant strain- as it is this year. In general, we estimate that about 90 percent of flu-related deaths are in people 65 and older,” Friedman said.

Influenza can also prove deadly to the youngest in the population. The CDC has reported 29 pediatric deaths from influenza so far this year.

“That's well below the 153 deaths reported in the 2003-2004 season which was another H3N2 season, but as I say we're only in the middle of our season and even a single death in a child is one too many,” Friedman said. “We expect to see both the number and the rates of both hospitalizations and deaths rise further in the next week or so.”

Cases of influenza A have been identified in Stanislaus County and county health officials are concerned there could be an increase in cases because of low vaccination rates during the fall.

In California flu activity was upgraded from regional to widespread during the second week of January. An Inland Empire adult under 65 years of age died from influenza last week. The Madera County public health department reported a 61-year-old woman died earlier this week from what was “likely” influenza-associated. There have not been any pediatric deaths in California.

While the virus is spreading health officials are letting people know that it’s not too late to vaccinate.

“The seasonal flu vaccine is an important and safe way to protect yourself and your loved ones against the flu,” said Dr. John Walker, Stanislaus County’s public health officer. “Everyone six months and over should get a flu shot.”

Vaccinations are available through private physicians and through the Stanislaus County Public Health Department. Vaccinations are available from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursdays and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. No appointment is needed. The health department is located at 830 Scenic Drive in Modesto.

The flu vaccine takes about two to three weeks for it to become effective. Currently, vaccines are available through doctors’ offices and most pharmacies.

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