In the worst flu season in years, does the vaccine help at all? You might be surprised

An empty bottle of flu vaccine.
An empty bottle of flu vaccine.

A state health official said it appears the flu season is one of the worst in 10 years and could end up as the most severe “in quite a long time.”

Gil Chavez, deputy director of the state’s center for infectious diseases, said Tuesday that virtually the entire country is seeing epidemic levels of seasonal flu. The primary flu strain in outbreaks in California and other states is one that usually results in more deaths and hospitalizations.

As hospital emergency rooms and clinics are inundated by patients with flu symptoms, the state Department of Public Health (CDPH) is working to confirm the number of flu deaths statewide. The state agency has recorded 27 influenza deaths since November, in comparison to three or four deaths at this point in a typical year.

State officials said in a teleconference Tuesday that county health agencies have the most updated data on flu-related deaths. Some counties in Southern California have reported dozens of deaths in their jurisdictions. The state will update its own count Thursday.

California usually has more than 100 deaths in a normal November-to-March flu season and the death count exceeds 300 in more severe seasons.

The state tracks influenza deaths among people 64 and younger as a way to measure the threat of seasonal flu to the general population. An elevated death rate in this healthier demographic suggests that a more virulent strain is circulating and poses a threat to the public, including older residents who are vulnerable to flu complications.

Other groups at risk of serious complications are pregnant women; children under 5 years old, especially infants and toddlers; and people with health conditions including asthma, diabetes and heart disease.

In Stanislaus County, the recent outbreaks have spurred debate on social media about the effectiveness of flu vaccinations. The arguments range from vaccine skeptics who say that flu shots didn’t help the thousands of people going to clinics and emergency rooms this month to people who encourage vaccinations.

Vaccine questions

State health officials provided an answer to a common question posted on social media. They said that 70 percent of those who died this season had not been vaccinated against the flu and 30 percent had received a flu shot.

The vaccine manufactured for the 2017-18 flu season was supposedly not a good match for the predominant flu strain, called H3N2.

Even if the vaccine is not a good match for the flu strains that are circulating, a vaccinated person should have a immune response that shortens the illness and lessens the severity of symptoms, the CDPH said.

Studies also have shown that flu vaccinations reduce the risk of death in young children, the agency said.

Experts said an emergency room crowded with flu sufferers is a good place to catch the flu. Avoid the emergency department unless you have a serious health problem, shortness of breath or have serious complications from flu illness.

Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock released information on how to know the difference between a cold and worsening flu symptoms that require medical attention.

Warning signs for children include a fever higher than 103 or a fever lasting more than three days; bluish skin color; earache; vomiting or abdominal pain; recurring flulike symptoms and irritability.

Adults should seek medical attention if they have a high fever lasting for days, accompanied by fatigue, body aches or fainting. Emanuel said that other warning signs of serious flu complications are confusion and disorientation, persistent vomiting, severe sinus pain and swollen glands in the neck or jaw.

Ken Carlson: 209-578-2321, @KenCarlson16