Healthy Choices

California’s death count from flu rises to 202

Statewide tallies put at 202 the number of people under 65 who have died of severe influenza so far this season, and state officials also reported a worrisome uptick in pertussis cases in 2013, including the first death of whooping cough since 2010.

The flu deaths are more than 11 times what California experienced last year at this time – just 18 fatalities – state public health officials said Friday. The toll is almost certain to increase, with another 41 lab-tested cases reported but awaiting confirmation, said Dr. James Watt, epidemiologist for the state Department of Public Health.

“The flu remains widespread, continues to circulate widely in California and continues to exceed expected levels,” Watt said.

More than two-thirds of the victims were ages 40 to 64, Watt said, reflecting how forceful the H1N1 virus is: Not even healthy young and middle-aged adults can be sure of escaping this flu, and may end up dying from it.

Watt said statistics indicate the flu may have peaked three or four weeks ago, but he cautioned that it is too early to determine whether influenza activity is winding down or leveling off.

“The flu is unpredictable,” Watt said, noting that there are seasons when viruses surge again after appearing to fade away.

Sacramento County has a flu rate more than twice as high as the statewide average, with 24 fatalities reported by county public health officials. A total of 102 people have been hospitalized in intensive care units this season. Watt said his team believes influenza is circulating throughout the state, and some counties may be better at reporting cases than others.

Also on Friday, Watt reported California’s first death of pertussis, or whooping cough, since 2010 – a 2-month-old infant in Southern California who contracted pertussis at 4 weeks old. Babies under 6 months cannot safely receive the pertussis vaccine, so it’s important for adults around babies and pregnant women to get immunized.

California’s pertussis cases doubled in 2013, the most recent year for which data are available. Statewide, 2,372 whooping cough cases were tracked with an onset in 2013, compared with 1,022 cases the previous year.

The majority of cases occurred in infants and children under 18, with the peak age beyond infancy being 15 years old. Watt said public health officials nationwide are discussing changes in the immunization schedule for youths, because the newer vaccine implemented in the 1990s is not as potent as the one it replaced for safety reasons.

Marin County and Nevada County had the first- and second-highest rates of increase in pertussis cases. Cases in Sacramento County jumped from 46 in 2012 to 69 in 2013.

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