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Flu deaths almost double last season
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The influenza virus, largely spurred by a resurgence of swine flu, continues to claim more lives in California as public health officials increase their efforts to vaccinate more of the population.

At the same time that the flu death toll mounts, the California Department of Public Health announced that the state has been seeing higher rates of pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, and that one infant has died from the virus.

The number of confirmed influenza related deaths in the state has increased by 56 this week to a total of 202 confirmed deaths for the season, the CDPH reported. Four of the 202 are pediatric deaths. There are an additional 41 deaths under investigation, not yet confirmed.

Stanislaus County has confirmed 12 influenza-related deaths so far this season, and has one of the higher rates in the state. Kinisha Campbell, a manager with the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency, said Stanislaus County historically has low vaccination rates, which could account for the higher rate.

The 202 confirmed influenza-associated deaths this season have been reported by the following jurisdictions: Alameda (5), Contra Costa (5), El Dorado (2), Fresno (15), Glenn (1), Humboldt (1), Imperial (1), Kern (8), Kings (3), Lake (1), Lassen (1), Long Beach (3), Los Angeles (26), Madera (2), Marin (2), Mendocino (2), Merced (4), Monterey (2), Nevada (1), Orange (8), Riverside (6), Sacramento (21), San Bernardino (15), San Diego (17), San Francisco (3), San Joaquin (6), San Luis Obispo (1), San Mateo (4), Santa Barbara (2), Santa Clara (10), Santa Cruz (1), Shasta (1), Siskiyou (2), Solano (1), Sonoma (4), Stanislaus (12), Tulare (1), Tuolumne (1) and Ventura (1).

The total number of deaths reported for the entire 2012-2013 influenza season was 106.

The spike in flu deaths this year is largely from a resurgence of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu. Swine flu differs from more typical influenza viruses in that it tends to cause more illnesses in children and young adults that it does in older individuals, though all age groups are susceptible. The complications from H1N1 can pose more health risks that seasonal flu. Health officials have reported seeing swine flu cases result in viral pneumonia, as opposed to bacterial pneumonia, which can occur with seasonal flu. Viral pneumonia is harder to treat.

Recent studies have also shown that the H1N1 virus is more likely to bind to the trachea, bronchi and bronchioles in the lung and sometimes to the intestines. Seasonal flu usually binds to the nostrils.

The 2009 H1N1 pandemic saw millions of people sickened by the virus worldwide and caused an estimated 150,000 deaths.

With the upswing in deaths and hospitalizations from the flu, the CDPH and local health agencies are increasing their efforts to spread the message to get vaccinated. Unlike in 2009, a vaccine that protects against the H1N1 virus is widely available.

"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."

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. Symptoms for H1N1 are similar to seasonal flu, but can also include bouts of diarrhea and vomiting and a more persistent cough. Lab tests are the only way to differentiate between H1N1 and seasonal flu.

The CDPH is also seeing an increase in whooping cough cases this season. Just recently a Riverside County infant less than six months of age died from the virus, marking the first confirmed death from whooping cough in the state since 2010.

People should check with their primary care provider or local pharmacy for flu and whooping cough vaccine availability. Flu vaccinations are 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.