The Latest Flu Season In Nearly Three Decades Finally Begins

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Pharmacy manager Brian Henzig, gives a flu shot to returning customers May Chung,… ( Josie Lepe )

Thought you were spared? Flu season is hitting California — finally. The United States is experiencing its latest flu season in nearly three decades, and California is one of two states now reporting widespread activity with the typical sore throats, stuffy noses, nagging coughs and achy muscles.

While experts can’t say for sure what took the flu bug so long to show up, some suspect milder weather may have helped slow the virus’ spread. It often has its heyday during the cold winter months when large numbers of people gather indoors. And because this year’s strains are so similar to last year’s, more Americans may have built up immunity either by getting sick last year or by being immunized. This year’s

vaccine is a good match for the circulating strains. But those who skipped the shot might wind up like Ocea Davis, who fell ill a few weeks ago. “I was feeling really weak,” said the Diablo Valley College student, who is majoring in film production. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to do anything. My sore throat was awful. I couldn’t swallow anything.”At the Jamba Juice where she works, she noticed that the Coldbuster smoothie suddenly became a hot item. “There was a mad rush of people trying to boost their immune system and be healthier,” she said. Health experts have another suggestion: Get a flu shot, if you haven’t already, especially because no one knows how long the season will last.

“We can’t predict the timing of peak activity in the United States, nor when it will end,” said Dr. Joseph Bresee, chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease. A variety of health providers and local pharmacies still have the vaccine, but it’s best to call ahead to see if it’s available. But don’t wait: Experts say it takes about two weeks for people to develop immunity.

Based on reports from around the country, flu activity is expected to pick up during the next few weeks, Bresee said. While the peak of the flu season is traditionally February, only one other time in the past 29 years — 1988 — has the season begun in February.

Kaiser Permanente in Northern California began seeing more flu cases a few weeks ago, said Dr. Randy Bergen, a pediatric infectious disease specialist.

Officials declare the start of the flu season when at least 10 percent of respiratory specimens tested for the virus are positive. Kaiser’s tests reached that threshold about Feb. 4. But rather than increasing, Bergen said, the number of positive tests seems to have plateaued, suggesting that this may be a mild season.

Influenza is different from the norovirus, which also has been circulating in the Bay Area. The norovirus tends to cause more vomiting and diarrhea, while the flu often produces more congestion, fever and overall body aches. Kaiser’s call center has not been receiving a large volume of flu-related inquiries, and Bergen said he has not been seeing a lot of children with high fevers.

“It doesn’t look like it’s as severe as some flu seasons are,” he said. “It looks like it’s going to be a not-very-active flu season, from our perspective.” Gerald Tung, a pharmacist at Oak Grove Pharmacy in Concord, said fewer people appear to have severe symptoms than in previous years. Nationally, three children have died this season, compared with 122 pediatric deaths last year.

Yet some people are still being hit hard. Engineer Andrew Cowan became ill three weeks ago and said many of his co-workers at Fluor in Dublin have gotten sick. “It was really bad,” Cowan said. “It was the worst flu I can remember having.” Cowan said he was vomiting and had diarrhea, fatigue and chills. He didn’t get a flu shot this year, but said he will consider doing so next year.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “I wasn’t paying much attention until it got up close and personal.”

By Sandy Kleffman
Bay Area News Group

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