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California flu hits 'widespread levels,' officials say

January 18, 2013 |  5:15 pm

At least five people in California have died as state officials announced Friday that the flu has reached "widespread levels."

Riverside County officials announced Friday that a 22-year-old Hemet man and a 4-year-old Perris girl died after testing positive for the flu. The man tested positive for Influenza A, the girl for Influenza B.

"We are seeing reports of flu activity in most regions in the state," said Gil Chavez, state epidemiologist for the California Department of Public Health.

The state's number of outpatient visits and hospitalizations is higher than normal for mid-January, signaling either an early start to the California flu season or a sign that this year's flu could be more severe than usual, Chavez said. The flu typically peaks in late February or early March, he said.

Five Californians under the age of 65 have died from this year's flu. Officials said the department is not able to track flu deaths of people over the age of 65.

Nationwide, seniors have been particularly hard hit by this year's flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 90% of flu-related deaths are among people age 65 and older. Hospitalization rates among that population have increased sharply for two weeks in a row, according to the CDC.

The CDC announced Friday that the flu is starting to decline throughout much of the nation. "Overall, activity is beginning to go down," said Tom Frieden, director of the agency. 

Nevertheless, hospitalization rates and deaths are expected to climb over the next few weeks as the flu progresses. California and other Western states are still seeing a rise in cases and probably still have most of the flu season yet to come, he said. 

Frieden said it's crucial for patients with the flu to get prompt treatment with medication such as Tamiflu, but that across the nation, many people are not getting the care they need. "We are not doing as well as we should be doing in getting people treated promptly," he said.  

Those who have not yet been vaccinated for the flu are still being encouraged to do so. Although there have been spot shortages of the vaccine, there is still supply available.  

"Although the flu vaccine is far from perfect, it is by far the best tool we have to prevent influenza," Frieden said. 

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-- Anna Gorman 

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