Healthy Choices

California flu fatalities rise another 35 in one week, totaling 278

Flu deaths in California continue to climb, with state officials Friday warning the public that the influenza season likely will last until April.

Measles cases, too, are on the upswing – mainly because of people returning from travel overseas, especially from the Philippines, where a typhoon last fall displaced families and triggered an outbreak of illness.

In a weekly briefing, state Department of Public Health officers said they’ve tracked 278 flu cases in which residents under the age of 65 have died. That’s an increase of 35 over last week’s report. Another 29 deaths are being investigated and are likely to be confirmed, meaning that next week, California will probably see the flu fatality count exceed 300 people.

At this time last year, the state had logged 32 cases of the flu that led to death. The entire flu season last year took 106 lives statewide.

Throughout California, seasonal influenza is still at a level considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be widespread, said Dr. Gil Chavez, chief epidemiologist for the state.

The number of people in Sacramento County who have perished as a result of the flu stands at 28, the second-highest count of all counties except Los Angeles, which reported 36 deaths to the state. The highest per capita rate comes from Stanislaus County, where 12 have died of influenza. Officials did not have an explanation for why some counties appeared to be harder hit than others.

Chavez said people should get immunized against the flu and make certain their immunizations against measles and pertussis are up to date, as well. Cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, rose in the latter part of 2013, and one baby too young to get a vaccine caught the disease and died in Riverside County.

More recently, measles has been a cause for concern, alarming officials who recall that the highly contagious disease was thought to have been virtually eliminated in the United States around the year 2000. This year, 15 cases of measles in people from five months of age to 44 years old have been reported, compared to two cases this time last year.

One case that’s drawn attention in the Bay Area involves a University of California, Berkeley, student with measles who may have exposed others to the disease during Bay Area Rapid Transit commutes. To date, no other measles cases have been reported from that exposure, which occurred while the student was traveling overseas. The incubation period ends Feb. 28, officials said.

“We’ve seen a recent surge in measles. We are off to a very bad start in 2014,” Chavez said. “If you choose not to vaccine, it might be prudent of you not to travel.”

Vaccination rates have been lower than health officials would like to see, and they continue to battle misconceptions surrounding the safety of vaccines. All but two of the new cases of measles occurred in people who were not vaccinated.

“The common thread between pertussis, measles and the flu is vaccination – or lack thereof. Unfortunately, we continue to see people becoming ill and dying because we are not taking advantage of, or maximizing the use, of vaccines,” Chavez said.

“These illnesses that used to be a thing of the past are continuing to make a comeback because people came to believe this myth that vaccines are dangerous,” said Chavez. “We continue to struggle with this. I think it’s been very clear to anyone that there’s absolutely no information to support the theory that vaccines are harmful to kids. That myth continues to play out.”

Recently, families who have lost loved ones to the flu in the greater Sacramento area have stepped up to urge other people to get vaccinated. Influenza is a severe respiratory disease that has landed more than 116 people in local intensive care units.

“Even a single death from the flu is a tragedy,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the state public health department. “The influenza season continues and it’s not too late for vaccination.”

This year’s vaccine for the flu targets H1N1, a swift-moving influenza A virus that is predominant this season and was responsible for a 2009 worldwide flu pandemic.

One characteristic of H1N1 is that it affects young and middle-aged adults, even if otherwise healthy. But the majority of those who’ve died in California had underlying medical conditions, such as compromised immune systems, respiratory problems, obesity or diabetes.

Though officials said it was too early to tell if the seasonal flu was winding down, outpatient visits and hospitalizations for influenza have held at or below roughly the same level for three weeks now.

Hospitals are required to report all influenza-like illnesses in people under 65 to county public health offices. State law requires reporting up to age 65 because that demographic is most representative of the general population, and it allows public health officers to track the prevalence of influenza in communities.

CDC-recommended immunization schedules are listed at www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html.

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