Thousands of Californians have been showing up at doctors' offices and hospitals sick with the flu this month, in what officials say could be a much more severe flu season than the last.
"If you compare this time last year we're seeing twice as many flu cases," said Dr. Michael Neely, interim chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. "If it keeps going up at this rate and stays up then we will see a lot more cases this year."
State public health officials on Friday morning reported the first death of a child in this year's flu season. The death was in Riverside County.
"This is a tragic reminder that the flu is a serious illness for people of all ages and kills thousands of Americans each year," said California Public Health Department head Dr. Karen Smith.
Fourteen people under the age of 65 have died of the flu in California this flu season, compared with three at the same time last year.
The higher numbers could be because the current flu season — which runs from October through May -- is peaking earlier than last year's, which did so in late February. Flu seasons most commonly peak in February, but it's impossible to know whether the virus is picking up or losing steam.
Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, acting director of the acute communicable disease program at Los Angeles County's Department of Public Health, said everyone over 6 months of age should get a flu shot. Even if young and healthy people aren't worried about catching the flu, they should still get vaccinated so they don't transmit it to others, he said.
"It's people looking out for each other and making sure they don't spread the disease to someone who may have a more difficult time fighting it," Schwartz said.
Not everyone is lucky enough to survive the flu. Some people develop and die from severe complications like pneumonia.
Schwartz said eight people in L.A. County alone have died of the flu this season — "an extreme underestimate" because the flu often doesn't get listed as the official cause of death, he said.
He urged people to stop by a pharmacy or make an appointment to get the vaccine, which takes about two weeks to start working. People with health insurance should be able to get the shot at no cost.
"It's still not too late to get the influenza vaccine … but the time to do it is today," Schwartz said.
Federal officials have not yet released an estimate for how effective this season's flu vaccine has been, but most of the virus strains circulating appear closely matched to those included in the available vaccine.
"We anticipate there will be good efficacy this year," he said.
Most people who've gotten sick across the country have been infected by the H3N2 strain of Influenza A. Schwartz said the strain tends to afflict older people, while the H1N1 strain — the cause of the swine flu pandemic in 2009 — hits kids particularly hard.
In L.A. County, there have been outbreaks at skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, he said.
"Everyone needs to take precautions, but particularly we need to work to make sure that older people are not getting infected," he said.
Neely at Children's Hospital Los Angeles said the hospital had yet to treat a child who was sick enough with the flu to require hospitalization. Those extreme cases tend to start popping up only once the flu has been circulating for a while, he said.
"Now that we see this virus really begin to take off … I'm expecting now to see some severe cases," he said.