M. Terry / SFVS 

Dr. Chelsey Kahanowitch prepares to administer a flu shot at the Dignity Health Family Practice Center in Northridge.

As temperatures dip across the country, the flu season is starting to pick up steam.

So far 13 pediatric flu deaths have been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which notes that the flu is widespread in 24 states.

California is not immune. So far, more than 40 people have died in the state since the flu season began in October 2018, including a four-year-old boy in Riverside county on Wednesday.The season runs through May, and typically reaches its height in February.

Half the deaths in California this season have occurred among people over 65. Older people are more likely to develop severe complications, such as pneumonia, after catching the flu.

So far, only one elderly person in Los Angeles County has died as a result of the flu. The patient had underlying health conditions, the county Public Health Department reported.

According to the county, there were 278 flu deaths in Los Angeles County during the 2017-18 flu season, the highest number since record-keeping began in 2010.

In fact, last year’s flu season was the worst in many years. Nationally, the death total for 2017-18 from influenza and its complications was estimated at 80,000, the highest such total in four decades.

“I know last year we had a very bad influenza season. So we’re really being proactive about making sure people get a flu shot this year,” said Dr. Chelsey Kahanowitch, a family medicine physician for the Dignity Health Family Practice Center in Northridge.

Part of the reason for the high fatality numbers was last year’s flu shot was not as effective. The vaccine makeup is based on research and projection studies, and in some years the more stubborn flu strains may not have been immediately identified.

“I think when they create the flu shot they almost have to, through research and other methods, decide which flu strains are likely to be the most prevalent that season. But unfortunately, they can’t predict 100 percent what are going to be the best strains to put in the vaccination,” Kahanowitch said.

“Some years they get it really well. Some years, maybe they don’t get all the strains that become more prevalent in a local population. Last year, who knows? That may have been part of the issue.”

Flu Shots Are Still A Good Preventive

While the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, medical authorities say it’s still the best way to prevent some of the worst symptoms and consequences of influenza.

“Me personally, I feel the flu shot is doing very well this year. That’s why I’m encouraging people to get the shot because last year at this time we saw so many people in the hospital that had influenza, had complications of asthma and other respiratory problems, and then they would get the flu on top of that. I feel the vaccination is operating much better this year,” Kahanowitch said.

“I’ve had one pediatric case of influenza this year where last year at this time I had multiple cases of people coming in influenza positive — especially on our pediatric floor. The young kids and the pregnant populations are the ones we really want to make sure get the influenza vaccine. They’re the ones at high risk, and also having severe, life-changing or life-threatening complications.”

During the 2017-2018 flu season, there were 185 flu-associated pediatric deaths reported to the CDC, up from 110 the previous season and 94 deaths in 2015-2016.

Most pediatric deaths this year are related to the H1N1 strain of the virus. The CDC warned on Dec. 21 that the H1N1 viruses have predominated to date and are associated with “significant illness and severe illness among young children” as well as higher rates of hospitalization.

The H1N1 virus that emerged in 2009 caused a global outbreak, and that pandemic caused severe illness in some children as well as young-and middle-aged adults.

“Sure, someone young and healthy in their 20s with nomedical problems can get the flu. But it’s not as likely to kill them or put them in the hospital as someone [young], older, or has their immune [system] compromised because they are pregnant,” Kahanowitch said.

Very Contagious

Influenza is highly contagious, though most people recover within two weeks. There is no cure, though annual vaccination is recommended for those six months and older anytime during the season. It can provide immunity depending on circulating viruses, or lessen the severity of infection and helps prevent the spread of the virus.

Most experts think flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when someone with flu coughs, sneezes or talks. They can infect people from six feet away.

People can carry the virus and risk exposing others even when they show little symptoms. Frequently touched surfaces at work or school should be cleaned and disinfected especially if someone is ill.

And while the flu shot may protect you from some of the most severe strains of the virus, it doesn’t mean you won’t become or haven’t been infected.

“Unless you get specific testing to know what you are sick with, you may or may not know if you should get the vaccination because there are other strains of flu you could still, unfortunately, [contract influenza],” Kahanowitch said.

A Cold is not The Flu

Don’t confuse the common cold for the flu. They are two different ailments.

“The flu is not a cold. The flu is fevers, body aches, severe coughing and fatigue — things that a common cold is not going to give you,” Kahanowitch said.

“Even when patients come to me and say ‘I have a cold today,’ I still tell them to get the shot. People think the shot makes them sick. I think it’s an unfortunate coincidence that we give the shot this time of year. This is the time of year it’s cold, we’re all staying indoors, we’re exposed to [someone] who may or may not have cold viruses. And it happens to coincide with this time of year when people get a flu shot. So they’re convinced the flu shot made them sick. But you had probably contracted the viral illness from somebody else and somewhere else.”

She said flu symptoms are specifically “high fevers; coughing, sore throat, runny nose. The big one is muscle and body aches. People feel horrible all over; they may be severely tired. They may have a headache. That comes from dehydration or the flu itself. And some strains of the flu can give you vomiting and diarrhea.

“That’s different from people who get a stomach virus,” Kahanowitch  added.


Five Habits That Help You Avoid the Flu

1.Avoid sharing pens. 

Whether at work or signing a credit card receipt at a store, never pick up a public pen because they’re covered with other people’s germs.  Keep a pen handy for any situation that could pop up.

2.Knuckle it. 

When using a debit card machine, get into the habit of punching in your card pin with a knuckle instead of a fingertip. This way if you rub your eye or mouth with your fingertip, you’re not transferring germs. 

3.Play it safe at the pump. 

Drivers must get gas for their vehicles no matter what, sick or not. Protect yourself at the pump by grabbing a paper towel before picking up the gas nozzle. You can also use the paper towel as a barrier when punching in your debit/credit card info.

4.Shake and Wash. 

People are more germ-conscious these days so avoiding a handshake is not as rude as once thought, especially during flu season. If you must do it, wash or sanitize your hands immediately.

5.Hands off, please! 

You are constantly using either your phone or computer tablet to show friends and co-workers pictures or videos. This means other people are putting their germs on something you are constantly touching. Get into the habit of wiping your phone down with a disinfecting wipe to cut down on spreading germs. Or just text your friends photos and videos!

For referrals to no cost and low cost immunization providers, dial 2-1-1 (Los Angeles County Information Line).

source: American Family Care