5 Things You Should Know About This Year’s Flu

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

(Kathryn Hunts/KQED)

Update February 21, 2014: The California Department of Public Health says 278 people have died of flu so far this year, and an additional 29 deaths are under investigation. While cases have been declining for a few weeks, state health officials still recommend people get vaccinated, if they haven’t already.

State health officials have released the latest numbers on flu deaths — 202 people have died so far this year and that’s up from 147 last week. That’s the bad news, but for the first time since early January, health officials are also saying that cases appear to be declining. At least for now. Flu season generally runs three months and is “notoriously unpredictable,” said Dr. James Watt, with the California Department of Public Heatlh and recommended that everyone got vaccinated.

Here at State of Health, we’ve noticed that a lot of the same questions come up again and again. With that in mind, we’ve compiled some answers.

1. Is the flu shot really the best way I can avoid getting the flu? In a word, yes. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says “the single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.” And you need to get it annually. While everyone over age 6 months should have it, CDC says, it’s especially important for people in high risk groups including:

  • People with certain underlying medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, chronic lung disease and obesity
  • Children under age 5 and adults over age 65
  • Pregnant women — yes, pregnant women, the vaccine is safe and effective for you, CDC says. Continue reading

Flu Death Count Continues to Climb

KQED News interactive producer Olivia Hubert-Allen gets her flu shot. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

KQED News interactive producer Olivia Hubert-Allen gets her flu shot. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

State health officials reported Friday that deaths from influenza have reached 147, including four children under age 18. Another 44 deaths are under investigation, but not confirmed.

The total deaths so far this flu season, which started last September, eclipses the number from all of last year — 106.

As health officials have noted all month, the H1N1 strain is circulating — that’s the same strain that led to the pandemic in 2009-2010. Younger adults are at increased risk from H1N1. The theory is that adults over 65 were exposed to H1N1 decades ago and have retained some immunity. Younger adults were (presumably) never exposed so have no natural protection.

Health officials urged all Californians over age 6 months to get a flu shot. This year’s vaccine is well-matched to the circulating strains, health officials say. They urge people who believe they have the flu to contact their doctors immediately and ask about anti-viral medications.

KQED radio’s Stephanie Martin talked to health editor Lisa Aliferis about the flu. Learn more:

California Flu Deaths Double Since Last Week


The flu shot is the best way to protect yourself against the flu, health officials say. (GabrielSaldana/Flickr)

State health officials reported Friday that fatalities from influenza now stand at 95 statewide — with another 51 deaths reported from local jurisdictions under investigation.

That brings the total to 146 deaths — more than the 106 deaths California had during all of last year’s flu season.

“We so far have a much more severe season,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez with the California Department of Public Health. A child in Riverside County was among last week’s fatalities, bringing to three the number of fatalities in children statewide. All of them were under age 10.

Chavez noted that the H1N1 strain is the culprit and says the strain causes more severe disease and more deaths. In addition, it tends to hit younger people harder, in particular those with pre-existing health conditions. Continue reading

Flu Now Widespread in California

Nursing student administers flu shot. (queensu/Flickr)

Nursing student administers flu shot. (queensu/Flickr)

State health officials are urging Californians to get vaccinated against the flu. At least nine people have died in the Bay Area in recent weeks.

The main culprit is the H1N1 strain, also known as swine flu. This is the same subtype of influenza that caused a pandemic in 2009-2010.

The vaccine is widely available and well suited to protect against the circulating H1N1 strain, officials say. Doctors’ offices, pharmacies and grocery stores carry the vaccine. In addition, local health departments generally provide the vaccine at low or no cost. Continue reading

New Flu Strain in China: How Far Will It Spread?

It was four years ago this month that a new strain of flu virus was reported in Mexico and captured global attention. Ultimately, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. More than 18,000 people died in 2009 from the virus.

Now, in China, global influenza experts are watching another novel virus, H7N9. So far, nine people are sick, and three are dead. As Helen Branswell at The Canadian Press (and self-described “flu freak“) reports “those first three sick people and the genetic sequences of the flu viruses that infected them were enough to make the hairs on the backs of knowledgeable necks stand on end.”

Branswell also tweeted that case “numbers are a moving target” right now.

She lays out why flu experts are racing to determine if we’re on the brink of the second pandemic in five years in this report:

Influenza scientists always pay attention when animal flu viruses start making people sick. There is a rich soup of flu viruses in nature, most of which human immune systems have never seen. Many of those viruses, at least in theory, have the potential to trigger pandemics.

So when China notified the World Health Organization over the weekend that it had found three cases of infection with H7N9 viruses, there was immediate concern. Continue reading