Deadly start to flu season prompts alert in Stanislaus County

kcarlson@modbee.comJanuary 6, 2014 

Stanislaus County officials are alerting health care providers and the public about a seasonal flu outbreak that has proven fatal.

Dr. John Walker, the county’s public health officer, said Monday that three people in the county have died in the past month after getting sick from influenza. Tests confirmed that one of them had the H1N1 strain – the predominant type of flu that is circulating this winter. That same strain is suspected in a second death, Walker said.

Two of the patients who died were county residents; the other was from a nearby county and was hospitalized locally. Officials did not release the age and gender of the deceased.

Walker said there are flu-related deaths in the county every year and that influenza kills almost 6,000 people annually in California. The seasonal flu is more of a concern this year because of the early start around the holidays last month and because of the H1N1 strain, which resulted in the 2009 pandemic.

During the flu season a year ago, one death from influenza was reported to the county public health division, a spokeswoman said. Hospitals report flu-related deaths to the county when the victims are less than 65 years old and were treated in intensive care units, so the county data is not complete, the spokeswoman said.

The H1N1 strain is known to cause serious illness in a broader spectrum of people, not just young children and seniors, but also adolescents and pregnant women, Walker said.

“Normally, a pandemic strain does not hang around that long,” Walker said. “The normal course is 18 months, and this is four years now. We have seen H1N1 in each of the years since 2009, but not like this season.”

Other counties across the state have reported flu-related hospitalizations and fatalities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first issued a national health alert about H1N1 just before Christmas.

The outbreak of H1N1 is not as strong as it was in 2009, and “this is not a suggestion we are going to have another pandemic,” Walker said. But officials believe that fewer county residents have been vaccinated for flu than in previous years. Those who were vaccinated for H1N1 in previous years are not protected from the current illness, officials said.

Residents still have time to get a flu shot from their doctor, a pharmacy or clinic, Walker said. The flu season normally runs well into March or as late as April, and the vaccination takes affect in about two weeks. This year’s vaccine guards against H1N1 and two other flu strains in circulation.

Randy Bergen, clinical lead for Kaiser Permanente’s flu vaccine program, said flu cases are widespread in Northern California, resulting in an increase in patients needing care at the Kaiser hospitals in Modesto and Manteca.

“In the last two weeks, we have seen quite a bit of influenza. I hope that means we are peaking but we don’t know for sure. Every medical center you can mention in Northern California is seeing flu activity,” Bergen said.

Bergen said the H1N1 strain tends especially to affect older children, young adults and middle-age adults. There’s an unproven theory that seniors – a classic high-risk group for flu – have more immunity to H1N1 because it has similarities to older strains such as Asian flu. Seniors are susceptible to other strains making the rounds, including another type of influenza A and an influenza B virus.

A hotline for Kaiser members, (800) 573-5811, provides information on where to get flu shots.

Craig Baize, communications manager for Sutter Health’s Central Valley region, said the flu was driving an increase in hospital emergency department visits. Memorial Medical Center of Modesto has been admitting five or six flu-stricken patients to hospital beds per week, he said. Baize suggested that Sutter Gould patients get a flu shot at their next medical office visit or get an appointment with their physician.

Stanislaus County’s immunization clinic for low-income residents is open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.

To prevent the spread of flu, people are advised to stay home when sick; cover coughs or sneezes with their elbow; wash hands; and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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