California is seeing widespread flu activity that is more severe than last year, health experts say, punctuated by San Bernardino County reporting its first flu-related death on Thursday.
Cold temperatures and wet weather have been the norm this month in the High Desert. Chances of contracting the flu or common cold are on the rise and those already contaminated can risk exposing others around them, experts say.
County Department of Public Health officials reported a child with underlying medical conditions died of the flu. There have been 14 other flu-related deaths statewide, two in the Inland Empire in the past week.
“The family has our sincerest condolences. The death of a child is always tragic, but this fatality is a reminder that the flu can be serious and often deadly,” San Bernardino County Public Health Officer Dr. Maxwell Ohikhaure said in a written statement.
While residents should always take precautions to avoid getting sick this time of year, Ohikhaure said the flu has spread to moderate activity in the county and has not yet reached its peak.
“Because we haven’t peaked, we may get a bit more cases most likely between early and late February,” Ohikhaure said. “The best way to avoid getting sick is to get vaccinated for the flu. Getting vaccinated is the best way to combat being sick and it's not too late to get a flu shot.”
Barstow Community Hospital Business Development and Marketing Director John Rader said the hospital hasn't experienced an uptick in flu cases yet, but agreed with Ohikhaure that it is not too late to be vaccinated.
"We have not experienced an increase in flu-related cases coming through our emergency department recently," he said in an email. "However, that can trend can change at any time and we highly recommend getting a flu shot and practicing the following cleanliness habits and healthy routines as described by Dr. Nader Abas, Emergency Department physician at Barstow Community Hospital.
Dr. Abas said those habits and routines include:
• Maintaining proper hygiene. Most viruses spread through direct contact, so it is extremely important to wash your hands regularly in warm, soapy water and avoid contact with face, mouth and eyes. When sneezing, always use a clean tissue and discard used ones, and if a tissue is not available, sneeze away from others.
• Staying home if you are sick and staying away from others who could be infected. The flu virus can be spread from an infected person to others up to six feet away, so it is important for those who think they may have the flu to stay home and avoid contact with others. Healthy individuals who live or work near someone infected with the flu should make sure to thoroughly wash linens, utensils, dishes and other commonly used items that could carry germs. Frequently touched surfaces should also be cleaned regularly.
• Drinking plenty of fluids. Staying hydrated can help flush out the body. It is an easy way to reinforce your immune system.
• Getting fresh air. Getting fresh air can also help keep the body hydrated, especially during the cold months when central heat tends to dry out the skin.
• Exercising regularly and maintaining a balanced diet. Exercising regularly and eating a diet high in vegetables and fruits can help increase blood flow and stimulate the body’s natural virus-killing cells.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, flu season typically begins at the start of October and can last until the end of March and is caused by influenza viruses. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.
Children under the age of 6, pregnant women and adults 65 or older are usually those at high risk for serious flu complications, such as inflammation of the heart, brain or muscle tissues, or multi-organ failure. Dr. Abas said people with chronic medical conditions and people who live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities are especially susceptible to complications related to flu.
"This year’s most prominent flu strain appears to be H3N2, an 'A' type strain known to cause more severe symptoms, especially in very young and elderly people," said Dr. Abas. "While the H3N2 strain has been known to cause particularly bad outbreaks of the flu in the U.S., the good news is there are several steps that can be taken to help prevent contracting and spreading the virus.
"This flu season the CDC recommends using an injectable influenza vaccine. Both the three-component and four-component vaccinations available this year contain protection against H3N2, so if you have not yet been vaccinated it is best to make an appointment with your primary care provider as soon as possible, especially if you are at high risk of contracting the flu. Flu vaccines are currently available at Barstow Community Hospital. For information about scheduling a flu shot, call John Rader at 760-957-3340."
Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, acting director of the acute communicable disease program at Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health, said eight people in L.A. County alone have died of the flu this season — “an extreme underestimate” because the flu often doesn’t get listed as the official cause of death. He urged people to stop by a pharmacy or make an appointment to get the vaccine, which takes about two weeks to start working.
“I advised those who are sick to stay home and avoid the emergency room unless it is critical,” Ohikhaure said. “Many folks come into the emergency room and we don’t wanna spread it in a room full of people. You could ask any of the hospitals and they’ll tell you they’re feeling the effect of people coming to the ER just to be hospitalized for a simple cold.”
To check flu activity monitored by the CDC, visit their website at www.cdc.gov.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Monica Solano can be reached at MSolano@VVDailyPress.com or at 760-951-6231. Follow her on Twitter @DP_MonicaInes