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With flu season about to hit Sonoma County, health officials advise early vaccinations

Licensed vocational nurse Karina Cortes gives a flu shot injection to Susan Schultz of Rohnert Park, at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, California on Tuesday, October 11, 2016. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

MARTIN ESPINOZA,

Flu season is here and local health officials say it’s a good time to get vaccinated against an illness that’s a temporary annoyance for most, but can be deadly for seniors, infants and those with compromised immune systems.

Official flu surveillance begins this month and local health care providers have already begun reporting a “tiny trickle” of flu activity in recent weeks. But health officials say North Coast residents should get vaccinated against the flu sooner rather than later.

“The flu is always unpredictable and it takes a while for our bodies to develop immunity, so it’s good to get vaccinated ahead of when it circulates,” said Karen Holbrook, Sonoma County deputy health officer.

The county health department urges everyone 6 months and older to get vaccinated. Holbrook said it’s too early to tell what strain of the virus will take off this season.

Last year, the most common strain was the Influenza A H3N2, a strain that can cause severe illness. There were no local deaths among residents up to the age of 64, an indication of whether the flu will be severe during a particular surveillance season.

“The marker of whether the flu is especially severe is if it’s causing hospitalizations requiring care in the intensive care unit or deaths in people age zero to 64,” Holbrook said.

Dr. Gary Green, head of the infectious disease department at Kaiser Santa Rosa Medical Center, said flu in the North Coast is “smoldering” and there have only been a few cases reported by Kaiser doctors. There have been no flu-related hospitalizations this early in the season, he said.

“The few cases we’ve seen are all Influenza A, which are more severe than Influenza B,” Green said, adding that most years see Influenza A in circulation. Sometimes the milder Influenza B circulates later in the year.

Green said global flu surveillance is currently reporting Influenza A circulating in the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere is often a bellwether of what might be circulating in North American later in the year.

“It’s important to get vaccinated, not only for you but for people around you,” Green said. “If you have a fever or flu-like symptoms don’t go to work or don’t go to school because you’ll just spread the virus.”

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Those at higher risk of severe illness from the flu should contact their health care provider. Doctors can often prescribe antiviral medications that reduce the severity of flu-related illness.

Green said Kaiser has already begun its vaccination campaign in Santa Rosa and that “It’s not too early to get a flu shot right now.”

He said early vaccination efforts help build “herd immunity or population immunity” so that the frail elderly and those with weakened immune systems are protected.

Holbrook said the official surveillance season runs from October through the end of April. Flu activity usually peaks around January and February, she said.

County health officials said the flu vaccine won’t yield protection from one season to the next and strains of the virus change over time. Those at risk of severe flu illness include pregnant women, children younger than 5, adults 65 and older, and those with chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.