The influenza virus that has been spreading across California continues to claim more lives, with Stanislaus County recording an alarmingly high rate of fatalities compared to other larger counties.
The California Department of Public Health announced Friday that the confirmed influenza related deaths in the state has increased by 52 to a total of 147 confirmed deaths for the season, as of Jan. 25. Four of the 147 are pediatric deaths. There are an additional 44 deaths under investigation and awaiting test results for confirmation.
"This influenza season continues to be a severe one as the increasing number of influenza-related deaths indicates," said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the CDPH. "Once again I urge all Californians to get vaccinated, because it is the best defense against influenza."
Stanislaus County has the fourth highest fatality rate in the state for this season of influenza, surpassing larger counties like San Francisco, Fresno, and San Diego.
The CDPH recorded Stanislaus County's total fatalities at 11, though one more death was confirmed as being influenza-related just recently, bringing the county's total to 12, said Kinisha Campbell, a manager with the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency.
Campbell said Stanislaus County historically has low vaccination rates, which could account for the higher rate. Also the weather may be contributing factor.
"The weather is good right now, so it's hard for people to identify with the flu right now," Campbell said. "Usually bad weather is a reminder for people to get their flu shot."
The 147 confirmed influenza-associated deaths this season have been reported by the following jurisdictions: Alameda (4), Contra Costa (5), El Dorado (1), Fresno (6), Glenn (1), Humboldt (1), Imperial (1), Kern (6), Kings (3), Lassen (1), Long Beach City (3), Los Angeles (17), Madera (2), Marin (2), Mendocino (1), Merced (3), Monterey (2), Nevada (1), Orange (5), Riverside (5), Sacramento (15), San Bernardino (13), San Diego (7), San Francisco (2), San Joaquin (4), San Mateo (4), Santa Barbara (1), Santa Clara (8), Santa Cruz (1), Shasta (1), Siskiyou (3), Solano (1), Sonoma (4), Stanislaus (11), Tulare (1), and Ventura (1).
The high number of deaths occurring this flu season is attributable to the resurgence of the H1N1 strain, also known as swine flu. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic saw millions of people sickened by the virus worldwide and caused an estimated 150,000 deaths. The H1N1 virus tends to cause more illnesses in children and young adults that it does in older individuals, though all age groups are susceptible.
Unlike the 2009 pandemic, a vaccine for the H1N1 virus has been available since the flu season began. The vaccine currently available protects against several strains of influenza, including the H1N1 virus.
The spread of the flu virus has caused some local hospitals and clinics to change some of their regular procedures and rules. Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock is restricting visitors who are younger than 15 years to help prevent the spread of the virus.
The growing number of flu cases is also having an impact on the local blood supply.
"Local cases of influenza and other upper respiratory tract infections have increased in numbers so rapidly during the past several weeks that we have seen a substantial negative impact on blood donors," said Dr. Christopher Gresens, the senior medical officer for BloodSource. "As a result, we recently have found it especially difficult to collect sufficient quantities of blood for the patients we serve. That's why we ask all healthy individuals who can donate blood to donate now."
People can still receive the flu vaccine to be protected this year. Typically, the flu season peaks in February and March in Stanislaus County and the flu vaccine only takes two weeks to become fully effective. Those at highest risk - the elderly, pregnant women, infants, or those with other health conditions - who show flu symptoms should contact their physician immediately in order to get the most effective treatment. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.
Influenza vaccine remains available and there is no widespread shortage of anti-virals for treatment. People should check with their primary care provider or local pharmacy for vaccine availability. Vaccinations are also offered at the Stanislaus County Public Health Department for $10 per child (6 months through 18 years) and $25 per adult. Flu vaccines are provided to the public during the hours of 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays at the Public Health building located at 820 Scenic Drive in Modesto. No appointments are necessary.
In addition to getting vaccinated, public health officials recommend everyone help prevent the spread of the seasonal flu by:
• Staying home when you are sick.
• Covering your coughs and sneezes with your elbows, sleeves, or with a tissue. Dispose of the tissue after each use. Coughing into hands can spread germs to others.
• Washing your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
• Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth, even after washing your hands.