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First flu death of 2015 reported in Sonoma County

Sonoma County reported its first influenza death of the season Friday as the virus expands its foothold in California.

The adult who died this week was identified simply as someone under the age of 65 “with underlying health conditions,” said Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy public health officer.

Three other Bay Area residents also died from the flu this week - two in San Mateo County and one in San Francisco. Their deaths came one week after California public health officials reported the state’s first flu death of the season.

The flu season to date has been relatively mild in both Sonoma County and the state, Holbrook said. In contrast, the flu is currently widespread in 46 states around the United States. However, California is beginning to see a “significant uptick in cases,” Holbrook said.

“The wave has yet to hit us,” she said. The same pattern occurred last year.

The U.S. is experiencing a moderately severe flu season, according to federal officials. They also noted that the current flu vaccine appears less effective than in past years and the H3N2 virus has been the most common flu strain to date.

Holbrook was unsure which strain of influenza was responsible for the first Sonoma County death.

This week the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted a new estimate that getting a flu vaccine this season reduces a person’s risk of needing to go to the doctor because of flu by 23 percent. Over the past decade, flu vaccine effectiveness in preventing medical visits has ranged from 10 to 60 percent.

The vaccine estimate underscores the need for additional prevention and treatment, including “the appropriate use of influenza antiviral medications,” officials said.

“Physicians should be aware that all hospitalized patients and all outpatients at high risk for serious complications should be treated as soon as possible with one of three available influenza antiviral medications if influenza is suspected, regardless of a patient’s vaccination status and without waiting for confirmatory testing,” Joe Bresee, branch chief in the CDC’s Influenza Division, said in a press release. “Health care providers should advise patients at high risk to call promptly if they get symptoms of influenza.”

Of cases involving H3N2 viruses, about 70 percent were of a type different from the H3N2 virus used in the vaccine. Some of the differences appear due to the way the virus has changed its makeup, or “drifted,” after the vaccine was composed, officials said.

To date this season, the county has reported just two severe flu cases, defined as those where a patient either is admitted to an intensive care unit or dies. The first case involved a child in November who later recovered and was discharged from the hospital.

Public health officials track flu-related deaths of those under 65 because they are deemed a more reliable gauge of the severity of flu outbreaks. Flu deaths are considered more common among older patients.

Despite the reduced effectiveness of this year’s vaccine, both county and federal officials still recommend vaccination this season. They noted that the vaccine still can prevent some infections, including from other influenza viruses that may circulate later in the season. And even when the virus doesn’t prevent infections, it still can reduce the severity of the illness.

Holbrook also encouraged those most at risk to quickly contact their doctors should they develop flu-like symptoms. The at-risk group includes pregnant women, children under 5, the elderly, and persons with such conditions as diabetes, obesity, asthma and heart disease.

Along with vaccinations, health officials recommend residents engage in frequent hand washing; cover noses and mouths when coughing; avoid touching eyes, noses and mouths; and stay home when sick.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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