The Stanislaus County Health Services Agency is reporting a 43-year-old woman died from complications related to influenza, marking the first death the county has recorded this flu season.
The woman, whose name and hometown were not released, had underlying medical conditions that were a factor in her influenza-associated death on Feb. 8, the health agency reported.
“We are grieved by the death of this county resident,” says Dr. John Walker, public health officer. “The immunity conferred by the vaccine only lasts six months or so and that is the reason that annual vaccination is essential.”
Overall flu activity in California has been widespread and at high levels this season, and local health officials are reporting it is on the rise in Stanislaus County. Typically, the flu season peaks in February and March in Stanislaus County. The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective.
By the end of January the California Department of Public Health had recorded nine influenza-associated deaths in individuals younger than 65 years in the state.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that flu activity has been elevated for 11 consecutive weeks nationally and is expected to continue for several more weeks, especially in parts of the country where activity started later, such as California.
The CDC recommends that everyone six months and older receive a yearly flu vaccine. Each year’s flu vaccine is designed to protect against the flu strains that research indicates will cause the most illness during the flu season. Traditional flu vaccines are made to protect against three flu viruses: an influenza A (H1N1) virus, an influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an influenza B virus.
This season the predominant flu strain appears to be seasonal influenza A H3N2 viruses, according to the CDC. In the past, this flu strain has caused more severe flu illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths. For example, H3N2 viruses were predominant during the 2012-2013, 2007-2008, and 2003-2004 seasons, the three seasons with the highest mortality levels in the past decade.
Adding to the worries of a severe flu season striking the population is that health officials have been finding that approximately half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are drift variants, meaning they are viruses with antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from that season’s vaccine virus. This means the vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced. This season's vaccine reduces the risk of having to go to the doctor from flu infection in vaccinated people by 23 percent, which is about half of what is usually seen when vaccine viruses and circulating flu viruses are well-matched.
The drift variant strain of the H3N2 flu viruses continues to dominate across the country, hitting older people the hardest. The flu-associated hospitalization rate among people 65 and older as of Feb. 6 is the highest rate recorded since the CDC began tracking that data in 2005. Overall nearly 60 percent of flu-associated hospitalizations have been among people 65 years and older, the CDC reported. Nearly 94 percent of all adults hospitalized for flu this season have had at least one reported underlying medical condition; the most commonly reported conditions are heart disease, metabolic disorders including diabetes, and obesity.
Children 0-4 years have the second-highest hospitalization rate so far this season. Like older people, children often fare worse during H3N2-predominant seasons, however the hospitalization rate for that age group this season is similar to what was seen for the same week during 2012-2013, which was the last H3N2-predominant season.
In addition to getting vaccinated, health officials recommend everyone help prevent the spread of the influenza virus by: washing their hands often with soap or water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer; avoid touching their nose, eyes, and mouth; cover their mouth with a sleeve or tissue when they cough or sneeze; and if sick stay home for work or school.
For individuals considered the most vulnerable to complications from the influenza virus, such as those over 65 years of age, those with chronic medical conditions, and children under one year, immediate treatment is optimal.
The CDC continues to emphasize the importance of prompt antiviral treatment for those who are severely ill and those who are at high risk of flu complications. Antiviral treatment, available only by prescription, should be considered for people at high-risk for severe influenza if they develop a flu-like illness, even before it has been confirmed to be influenza. In addition, persons with chronic medical disorders should also receive the pneumococcal vaccine. This is especially important for those with diabetes, respiratory disorders, and cardiac disease. The pneumococcal vaccine provides protection from the most common cause of pneumococcal deaths for 10 years or more.