County reports first flu fatality

The swine flu pandemic claimed its first victim in Stanislaus County, a 21-year-old woman who died last week after she was hospitalized with severe pneumonia.

County health officials received a positive test result Monday revealing that the woman died Wednesday from complications of H1N1 influenza. Officials did not release her name or where she lived. According to a news release, she had existing medical conditions.

"We would like to convey our deepest sympathy to the family of this patient," Dr. John Walker, county public health officer, said in a news release Monday. "Clearly, virus activity is on the increase within our community. However, this should not be cause for alarm."

Although the swine flu has generated fewer headlines in recent months, there are clear signs that it threatens to make people sick this summer in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, officials said.

Last week, the California Department of Public Health said the influenza strain was widespread in the state, with more than 2,000 reported cases, 233 people hospitalized and 24 deaths since April.

The dead woman is one of four known cases in Stanislaus County. All of the positive tests have come in the past three weeks, Walker said. The state public health system is monitoring influenza at levels normally seen during the winter, and most of the flu virus circulating in California is H1N1.

Walker said it wasn't cause for alarm because the illness is similar to seasonal forms of influenza, which result in about 36,000 deaths every year in the United States. The majority of H1N1 cases are mild to moderate, and most people fully recover.

Since outbreaks first were reported in Mexico in April, communicable disease experts have been concerned that younger people seem more vulnerable to the H1N1 virus and some of the fatalities were previously healthy adults.

"The tragic California H1N1 deaths this spring and summer reveal that we are still in the early stages of a global influenza pandemic and need to continue precautions to protect ourselves, our families, our co-workers and our community," Walker said.

Communicable disease nurses with the county Health Services Agency were investigating the circumstances of the woman's death. As of Monday afternoon, officials had little information about how the woman contracted the flu or whether others close to her were exposed.

"At this time, there is clearly the potential for it to spread person-to-person within our community," Walker said. "Our assumption is she acquired the illness in the community."

He said his department wasn't aware of the woman's illness before a state lab reported the positive test to the county Monday. After receiving the test result, Walker's office started gathering information about the case and learned the woman had died last week, he said.

The symptoms of the illness are similar to seasonal flu: fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some patients have experienced diarrhea and vomiting.

Experts believe that people with chronic health conditions, especially asthma and emphysema, are more prone to becoming severely ill.

While the flu strain is expected to spread locally in the coming weeks and months, it hasn't approached the point where emergency measures would be taken, such as closing year-round schools or canceling public events, Walker said.

People are urged to take precautions, such as frequent hand washing and staying home if you are sick.

Drug manufacturers are preparing a swine flu vaccine for worldwide distribution, but it isn't expected to be available until December, Walker said. County residents likely will be asked to get two flu shots later this year, one for seasonal flu and the other for H1N1.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.

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