Public health officials are gearing up for an early and potentially long and deadly flu season this year by asking people to get the flu vaccine before the end of October.
A 4-year-old boy in Perris, who died last month, tested positive for the influenza virus, prompting health officials in Riverside County and the rest of the state to conclude that a flu-related death so early portends a flu season that could be worse than normal.
While 2017 was the worst flu season in recent history worldwide, 2018 was the longest flu season in the past decade, said Jake Porter, a pediatrician at the Riverside Medical Clinic, which held a drive-thru flu clinic at its Temescal Valley location Saturday, Oct. 5. The next drive-thru clinic is 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Riverside Medical Clinic, 7117 Brockton Ave. in Riverside.
“We tend to get a pretty good response for our drive-thru clinics because it really doesn’t get any easier,” Porter said. “You don’t even have to get out of your car.”
Whether they drive through in Riverside or walk into a clinic in their own community, Porter said, people should get their vaccines as soon as possible. It takes up to two weeks for the body to start producing antibodies. Even though the flu vaccine is about only 50% effective, years of study show that getting the vaccine could also decrease the severity and duration of the illness, preventing hospitalization and other complications.
Health officials and healthcare providers stateside say they are alarmed by Australia’s severe flu season this year, which is often a predictor of the Northern Hemisphere’s flu season. This year, Australia’s flu season began in April, two months earlier than usual, and has continued into October. So far in 2019, there have been 662 flu deaths in that country compared to 745 in 2017, according to the Australian Government Department of Health’s website.
The 2017-18 flu season claimed 1,690 lives in California compared to 579 the year prior, according to the California Department of Public Health. The Centers for Disease Control reported 79,400 flu-related deaths nationwide in the 2017-18 season. The following season saw fewer deaths, about 61,200. But health officials said the 2018-19 flu season was lengthier than normal. This year, they fear it’s going to be even longer.
Hospitals in Southern California already are beginning to see several confirmed flu cases, said Dr. Wendy Colin, assistant director of primary care at Kaiser Permanente Orange County.
“It’s still not at the levels we see during the peak flu season,” she said. “But it is very unusual to see so many cases at this time of the year. We’re regularly seeing cases in our urgent care center and hospital, which is unusual.”
The most important precaution people can take is to get vaccinated, Colin said.
“Other than that, frequent hand-washing is important,” she said. “Stay away from people with symptoms. Get enough sleep — seven to eight hours each night — and eat a healthy, balanced diet, which will keep you healthier and your immune system stronger.”
Some of the common symptoms of the flu, according to the CDC, include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. Children may also experience vomiting and diarrhea. Flu viruses spread mainly through tiny droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk.
Medical providers and county health agencies around Southern California have already begun their flu vaccination drives and are urging the public to get vaccinated early. People can call their county health agency to locate a low-cost or free flu clinic or contact their primary care doctor.
Colin said misconceptions and misinformation about the flu vaccine do not help drive home the importance of getting vaccinated.
“I’ve heard people say you can’t get the vaccine if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding or if you’re a cancer patient,” she said. “But the opposite is true. When you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you are more susceptible to not only getting the flu, but passing it on to the newborn.”
Only infants 6 months or older can get the vaccine, which means newborns are not protected against the virus, Colin said. Cancer patients are better protected when they get vaccinated, meanwhile, because their immune system is typically weak, she said.
“Also, you can’t get the flu from the vaccine,” she added. “You may feel achy or get a slight fever, but that’s your body developing immunity to the influenza virus.”