January 11, 2014

Merced County starts seeing flu cases

Merced County Public Health said the county has seen three severe cases of the flu virus this season. Officials said that’s not a high number but the peak of the season is still to come.

The flu season in Merced County has been fatal for two people, and doctors say many residents are choosing to do without the vaccine.

There have been three severe cases of influenza reported in the county, according to Kathleen Grassi, director of the Merced County Department of Public Health. Two of the cases were fatal, and the third resulted in hospitalization.

Of the three severe cases, two of the victims were men and one was a woman, Grassi said. She declined to be specific about their ages, citing confidentiality. “Across the state and the country, we’re starting to see increases in flu cases, but this is the time of year,” Grassi said.

An increase in flu cases is typical for this time of year, she said, adding the season usually peaks in late January or early February. Officials “strongly recommend” that people get a flu vaccine as soon as possible. Grassi said it takes about two weeks for the shot to be its most effective.

The most common strain this year has been the H1N1 virus, Grassi said. That strain was new to doctors in 2009 and led to a pandemic. Grassi said flu vaccines protect against the H1N1 strain, as well as others.

The cases statewide have occurred primarily in adults who have other medical conditions, leaving them more vulnerable to the flu than most people, she said. On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 6,000 Californians die from the virus every year.

Some area doctors believe fewer people in Merced County are electing to get the shot than in a typical year.

Dr. Eduardo Villarama, a family practitioner at Golden Valley Health Centers, said the clinic purchased 15,000 vaccine dosages for adults this year and has 5,000 left. “That is unusual, because usually right around this time we would have had in the hundreds – maybe 200, 300 or at the most 1,000 left,” he said.

The Merced clinic admitted 24 cases of influenza in November and 53 in December. Villarama said that’s an increase of 36 percent from the average over the previous few years. He said flu season is always unpredictable.

Villarama said some people mistakenly believe the shot can make them sick and avoid it. The vaccine has side effects that mimic flu symptoms but they outweigh the benefits it can provide, he said.

Still others are skeptical of the vaccine, he said, because they believe they can avoid the virus by regular hand-washing, avoidance of those who are ill and other basic practices.

Villarama said smokers, asthma sufferers, diabetics, anyone with kidney problems and people with lung problems are the most susceptible to complications from the flu.

Mercy Medical Center in Merced has also seen an increase in patients with flu-like symptoms, said Dr. Lesley Xiong of Dignity Health Medical Group. The symptoms are appearing earlier in the season than last year, she said.

The reason for the increase is hard to pinpoint, Xiong said. Patients seem to be declining the vaccine at a higher rate for themselves and for their children, she said. “I don’t know where they’re getting their information from and why they think it’s harmful for their children, but I do see that they’re deciding against it,” Xiong said.

Xiong said children are the most common flu sufferers in her office. She recommends that children who are sick should see their doctor as soon as they show flu symptoms.

Memorial Hospital Los Banos has not seen an increase in patients it can attribute to flu-like symptoms, according to Craig Baize, marketing and communications manager for Sutter Health.

Experts recommend the vaccine.

A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website, www.flu.gov, lists drugstores in Merced County that offer flu shots.

The Merced County Public Health clinic, 260 E. 15th St., administers shots on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings. Call (209) 381-1010.

Golden Valley Health and Mercy Medical offer flu shots as well. Contact Golden Valley at (209) 383-7441, and Mercy Medical at (209) 564-5000.

People seeking a flu shot in Los Banos can make an appointment with Memorial Hospital’s Rural Health Clinic at (209) 710-6333.

To prevent the spread of flu, people are advised to stay home when sick; cover coughs or sneezes with their elbow; wash hands; and avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

Anyone with flu-like symptoms should call a doctor or medical hot line before going to a clinic or hospital to avoid spreading the virus, experts say.

Flu season can run as late as April. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

More information is available at Merced County’s website, www.co.merced.ca.us.

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