Sacramento County and the nation are in the throes of the annual flu season, battling a virus capable of causing serious and even fatal illness among not only senior citizens and people with chronic illnesses – groups typically more vulnerable – but also people who are relatively young and healthy.
Still, despite three deaths and a flurry of hospital admissions in Sacramento County in recent weeks, the numbers of people afflicted by influenza this season are so far unremarkable, health specialists said.
“We are in a typical flu season, in which we see spikes in January and February,” said Kate McAuley, a public health nurse and immunization project coordinator for the Sacramento County health department. “So far, it’s very similar to last year,” in which the county recorded 16 flu-related deaths for the season, McAuley said.
The Sacramento area’s flu outbreak seemed to start around Christmas, health specialists said. Since then, area emergency rooms and clinics have been busy treating an increasing number of people with symptoms that include fever, muscle aches, sore throats and nasal congestion. The misery typically lasts two to seven days.
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“During the last week or two, we’ve really had an increase in the number of pediatric patients who we are treating for influenza,” said Dr. Dean Blumberg, associate professor and chief of pediatric infectious diseases in the UC Davis Health System. “I’m getting calls every day about patients who are testing positive.”
The flu can be particularly dangerous for very young children, several of whom have been admitted to the hospital recently with severe symptoms including unusually high fevers and difficulty breathing, Blumberg said.
“The numbers are comparable to last year, when we saw a spike right around Christmas and New Year’s,” said Blumberg. “The question is how long this is going to last, and whether the numbers will keep rising.”
Sutter Medical Center’s two hospitals in Sacramento also are seeing a seasonal surge in patients with flu symptoms, said spokesman Gary Zavoral. The numbers are slightly higher than what the facilities saw last year, which health officials said was a relatively mild season for influenza in the area, Zavoral said.
The flu is making its way across California and the nation at large, with some swaths of the country suffering more than others.
The California Department of Public Health is reporting “regional” outbreaks up and down the state in its weekly snapshot of influenza activity. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has documented an increase in reports of seasonal outbreaks, with the highest activity being reported in the southeast and south central parts of the country, along with some portions of the Southwest. California, as of last week, was reporting “minimal” flu activity, officials said.
“We are seeing substantial increases in flu activity, but it’s the kind of activity we come to expect during influenza season in the United States,” said Dr. Michael Jhung, medical officer in the CDC’s influenza division. Numbers are based on voluntary reports from hundreds of doctors and other health specialists across the country.
The most remarkable thing about this season’s flu outbreaks is that they are striking more people who are relatively young and otherwise healthy, said Jhung and others.
Sacramento County officials have not identified the three people who died from influenza so far this season. But officials said they did not appear to have any serious underlying illnesses. The patients ranged in age from somewhere in their 30s to age 61. All tested positive for the influenza A strain of H1N1, a version of the viral strain that caused a worldwide pandemic in 2009. H1N1 tends to strike younger, healthy adults harder than other versions of the flu.
Like the 2009 flu, this year’s virus “appears to be relatively sparing of older adults,” said Jhung. “We think that’s because people who were alive back in the 1940s had some experience with a similar virus,” which has provided some immunity from the current strain.
Still, as with other strains of influenza, H1N1 remains most dangerous for adults ages 65 and older, children under age 2, and people with chronic illnesses.
According to the CDC, between 3,000 and 49,000 people die in the United States each year from influenza. Surveys show that the flu is responsible for hundreds of millions of lost work days.
The best defense against the illness is vaccination, and “it’s not too late,” as flu season could continue for another month or more, said Jhung. The widely available vaccine covers all three strains of the flu that have been detected this year, and health officials recommend that everyone ages 6 months and older receive it. The vaccine can take up to two weeks to provide full protection.
Despite aggressive outreach by public health agencies, and the widespread availability of flu shots in medical offices, pharmacies and grocery stores, fewer than half of those eligible to get vaccinations take advantage of them, according to the CDC.
“Only forty to 45 percent of the eligible population gets vaccinated,” said Jhung. “We’d like to see it at 70 percent or higher.”