Flu hits epidemic levels as deaths top last season

A box of flu vaccine shots.
A box of flu vaccine shots.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Spurred by the powerful H1N1 strain, flu activity this season has reached epidemic levels. The flu-related death toll so far this season is the highest since the pandemic of 2009-2010, according to data released Friday by the California Department of Public Health.

The tally of confirmed 147 influenza-related deaths, plus another 44 that are under investigation, pushes the state into epidemic territory, said Gil Chavez, deputy director and state epidemiologist for the CDPH. 

"We are seeing activity of influenza that is above expected levels so that basically tells you that we have activity that is above epidemic thresholds, above epidemic levels,” he said.

Last year at this time there had been 14 flu-related deaths, according to the state. Overall there were 106 fatalities during the 2012–2013 flu season, state health records show.

The current figures are through Jan. 25th. Of the 147 dead, four were children. Of the confirmed deaths, 17 occurred in Los Angeles, five in Riverside, three in Long Beach and seven in San Diego.

The majority of deaths occurred among those with other health issues, said James Watt, who oversees the Division of Communicable Disease Control for the Center for infectious Diseases at the California Department of Public Health.

“We expect the influenza deaths to continue to climb,” he said.

State officials began tracking flu-related deaths on a voluntary basis in 2009 after the 2009-10 pandemic, and in 2011 reporting became mandatory, Watt said.

Deaths of those over 65 are not included in the total tally. It is unclear how deep the impact of the flu is since older people are especially affected by the flu and often have other health problems.

Watt and Chavez stressed the importance of the flu vaccine and said it is still not too late to get it. They said they do not know what percentage of the population has taken the vaccine, which contains one H1N1 strain.

Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose and body aches. The elderly, pregnant women, babies and those with health conditions are considered high risk. They should see their doctor as soon as they have flu symptoms, Watt said. 

The state health officials said they have not implemented any extra preventive measures beyond the established guidelines, but at least one local hospital has taken action.

At Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, staff are handing out surgical masks to all visitors to slow the spread of the flu, said Rekha Murthy, director of hospital epidemiology.

"During this kind of epidemic we felt there needed to be stringent controls to just make sure we weren't putting patients at risk," she said. 

Year Number of Flu Deaths
2013-2014 (through Jan. 25) 147
2012-2013 106
2011-2012 51
2010-2011 * 89
April 23 2009 – August 28 2010 ** 539

The state has only required the reporting of flu deaths of those under 65 since 2011; prior to that year it was voluntary.

* Only deaths between 18-64 were reportable for 2010-2011. The other seasons report deaths between 0-64.

** This covers a longer period than the regular flu season; there was no vaccine at the beginning of the pandemic.

Source: California Department of Public Health