The current influenza season is proving to be more virulent and deadlier than in previous years and has health officials concerned about the rate of infections during the typical peak months of January and February.
So far, this season the state has recorded 27 influenza-related deaths in people under the age of 65, including one in Stanislaus County. Health officials began seeing flu cases earlier than in previous years and are uncertain if the increased activity will end sooner or will continue to grow as the flu season hits its peak time.
"We might end up having one of the worst seasons in quite a long time, but we won't know until it is over," Dr. Gil Chavez, the state's epidemiologist, said Tuesday during a teleconference with reporters.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that influenza activity has increased significantly over recent weeks with influenza A(H3N2) viruses predominating so far this season.
The presence of the A(H3N2) virus is problematic for health officials because it is a strain that has in the past been responsible for more hospitalizations and deaths in people 65 years and older and younger children, according to the CDC. Additionally, the vaccine effectiveness for A(H3N2) has generally been lower than other strains. The CDC reported the 2016-17 vaccine had a 32 percent effective rate for this particular strain.
"Each year these viruses can undergo changes that impacts how well these vaccinations work," said Chavez. It's very challenging to predict which virus will dominate."
Health officials are still encouraging people to go out and get vaccinated, touting the benefits of even a partially effective vaccine.
"Even when vaccine effectiveness is not 100 percent, vaccination is still important," said Dr. James Watt, chief of the state's division of communicable disease control. After immunization the immune system recognizes and binds virus strains, thereby preventing disease and reducing the severity of illness and preventing complications and death."
It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the body to respond fully.
"With the increase in influenza impacting many communities across the entire state, it is important to get a flu shot now if you have not done so already," said CDPH Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith. "Although influenza season usually peaks between December and February, flu activity can occur as late as May, which means it is not too late to get vaccinated."
Some people are at high risk for serious flu-related complications that can lead to hospitalization and even death including:
• Pregnant women
• Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old
• People 65 years of age and older
• People who have certain medical conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease.
For those at high risk of serious flu complications, getting vaccinated is especially important. It is also important for caregivers of anyone at high risk including children younger than 6 months, who are too young to get a flu vaccine.
Individuals in a high-risk group that experience symptoms of flu (fever, chills and feeling very tired accompanied by sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches, or nasal congestion), should contact their health care provider early in the illness. Antiviral drugs can be prescribed by a physician, and work best if started within two days of getting sick. Individuals who are not in high risk groups and who have mild illness typically do not need medical care or antiviral drugs. These individuals should stay home and avoid contact with other people. Anyone who experiences more severe symptoms such as trouble breathing, pain or pressure in the chest or abdomen, difficulty eating or drinking, or confusion should contact their health care provider or seek emergency care.
To stop the spread of flu and other respiratory illnesses, you should also:
• Stay home while sick and limit contact with others
• Cover your cough or sneeze with your sleeve or disposable tissue
• Wash hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth