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Flu activity hits state earlier than last year

But when compared to other years,  numbers are ‘par for the course’

REGION — The flu season has started and the virus has reached widespread status earlier than last year.

That’s according to the CDPH (California Department of Public Health), which held a conference call to report its findings last week.

“As it is expected for this time of the year, seasonal influenza activity continues to rise in California,” said Dr. Gil Chavez with the CDPH.

He announced that the flu has reached the widespread status for the state.

“Of particular note, we have seen the flu activities trending up a little earlier than last year,” he said, adding that outpatient visits for influenza-like illness and hospitalizations for pneumonia and influenza are above what is expected for this time of year based on historical averages.

During the conference call, the CDPH confirmed seven deaths since September 2013 from the flu. That didn’t include a Jan. 8 reporting of the death of a 51-year-old man in San Diego. The man, who died on Jan. 2, tested positive for influenza A, but also had existing medical conditions.

On Wednesday, the county reported six new deaths in San Diego resulting from the flu. The age ranges in those deaths are from 35 to 80 years old, and all had pre-existing medical conditions.

“The number of confirmed influenza fatalities reported to the California Department of Public Health is rising rapidly, and exceeds what is expected for this time of the year,” Chavez said.

There are an additional 28 flu-related deaths in the state currently under investigation by CDPH.

All of the deaths reported were adults, though the CDPH didn’t give the ages of those deaths.

Historically, the influenza activity starts increasing late in December, Chavez explained, which they saw this year, and then peaks in January and February, which also is happening this year. “It’s just that it’s happening slightly earlier than you normally would have,” he said.

Whether warmer conditions are contributing to the widespread factor of the virus in Southern California just isn’t known.

“One of the things we do know about influenza is that it is a seasonal illness, that it tends to peak in the winter time,” said Dr. James Watt with the CDPH. “But the precise interactions between climate and temperature and things like that in influenza are actually not well understood,” he said.

The pandemic H1N1 strain appears to be the dominant strain circulating throughout California so far, this flu season, Chavez said.

He added that there were two other viruses — influenza A virus (H3N2) and an influenza B virus — also circulating.

“The predominance of H1N1 presents particular challenges because it can cause severe illness in all age groups and is more likely to cause illness in children, young adults compared to other influenza viruses,” he said.

Though the seasonal vaccine, he added, is a 100 percent match for the H1N1 strain.

Dr. Kalvin Yu, Kaiser Permanente chief of infection diseases in Southern California did say their clinics have seen an increase in patients displaying flu-like symptoms.

The CDPH receives data on the flu comes from Kaiser Permanente’s Northern and Southern California hospitals, which is measured by ER visits and confirmation diagnoses through laboratory testing, Yu explained.

“The last week of data, ending in Jan. 5, we saw about a 1,088…patients in all of our ERs Southern California-wide with a provisionary diagnosis of flu or flu-like symptoms,” he said.

“Our testing rates actually have consistently doubled each week for the last four weeks,” Yu added.

Though Yu said the numbers weren’t abnormal for this time of year. “This is a little bit of (an) earlier start than last year,” he said. “But compared to other years, this is par for the course.”

There is still a certain population that is resistant to getting a flu vaccine, Yu explained. Much of that is due to myths about receiving the flu shot that just aren’t true.

“One of them is that you can get the flu from the flu vaccine. And that’s not true,” he said. “The reason why some people feel a little bit under the weather for up to 48 hours afterwards, is because their immune system is being tricked into thinking it has been exposed to the flu. So it’s building the protective antibodies and the whole process can cause a little bit of a fever or feeling a little bit run down.

“But it’s usually only at most for 48 hours after the flu shot. But some people misinterpret that as having the flu,” Yu said.

In the North County Health Service clinics, Director of Pediatrics Dr. Kenneth Morris said they are just barely starting to see a few cases, lagging behind what the ERs and the national scene has been seeing for the last two or three weeks.

Morris, who also oversees the vaccination program for pediatrics and adults at all of the NCHS sites, attributes that to most of the school districts not being in session due to winter break.

“Generally what we see is within a week of the kids going back to school then our clinics start getting super busy with a lot more flu cases,” he said.

With the kids going back to school last week, Morris said he’s expecting to see an increase in flu activity in their clinics imminently.

It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become effective.

But Morris said that it isn’t too late to receive the flu shot and there’s plenty of the vaccine available for those that want to receive it.