The flu epidemic appears to be slowing down, but health officials say Californians should not let their guard down just yet. The powerful H1N1 virus has fueled this flu season and it is a tricky strain.
There were 24 new confirmed flu-related deaths as of Feb. 21, bringing the state total for the season to 302, according to data released Friday by the California Department of Public Health. Among the dead were six children and one pregnant woman. State data does not include flu deaths of those over 65.
Officials are cautious because H1N1 has been known to peak more than once as it did during the pandemic of 2009. During that flu season this particularly brutal strain killed 539 people.
Last year at this time there had been only 34 deaths and by the end of the season 106 people had died. In the previous flu season, 2011-2012, there were only 51 influenza-related deaths.
“The influenza season continues,” said Ronald Chapman, who heads the state agency. “It’s not too late for vaccination, which is still the best way to prevent illness and the spread of illness.”
Of the statewide deaths 44 have occurred in Los Angeles County, 13 each in Orange and Riverside Counties and 23 in San Bernardino County.
H1N1 has hit young and middle aged adults the hardest. The majority of victims who have died had chronic medical issues such as asthma, diabetes, and heart and lung conditions. Especially susceptible are the elderly, pregnant women, babies and those with chronic medical conditions.
“Flu is unpredictable, you never know what’s going to happen,” said Janice Louie, medical officer at the state health agency. “It looks like it’s going down but it may have another peak…so vaccination is still important.”
Louie hopes that number of deaths from H1N1 in future years will decline because so many people have been exposed this year. That exposure should contribute to better immunity against the strain.
Still, she said, getting the flu vaccine is key because there are many strains of the flu and it’s unclear which ones will circulate each year. Health experts say most people can weather the flu at home, but those considered high-risk should see their doctor if they being to experience symptoms.
Signs of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and body aches.