California's first flu death of season recorded in Santa Clara County

Marking the beginning of what could be a particularly bad flu year, California public health officials confirmed the first death of the season Wednesday.

“As California’s public health officer, I am troubled when the flu turns into loss of life,” said California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Karen Smith in a statement. “It doesn’t have to. That’s why I urge you to get your flu shot. By getting vaccinated, you can keep yourself healthy and stop the virus from spreading to others.”

The flu victim was under 65 years old and lived in Santa Clara County.

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Health officials in California have been recommending the flu shot since October, which is the earliest the flu season typically begins. Last year's season peaked in mid-January in California and in late December nationally.

"Now is a good time to be vaccinated before the flu really spreads widely," she said. The most recent department data shows that flu activity in California was low in late October, as expected for that time of year.

Officials say everyone at least 6 months old should get a flu shot, which is the best defense against the illness. Smith said the vaccine now available has been updated to match the viruses most likely to be circulating in California this year. 

Researchers expect H3N2 to be a common flu virus this year. Years when H3 viruses dominate tend to be the worst flu seasons, with more hospitalizations and deaths, experts say. 

Last flu season, a strain of H3N2 that was responsible for most of the illnesses nationally emerged too late to be included in U.S. vaccines. As a result, the overall effectiveness of last year’s vaccine was only 23%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But federal officials say they've worked to make this year's vaccine a better match for the strains that will likely infect patients this flu season. By testing the viruses circulating earlier this year, researchers determined that the majority were H3N2 viruses, and the vaccine should provide protection against all of them. 

Officials say they expect that there will be between 171 million and 179 million doses available nationwide, more than any other year except 2009.

The 2014-15 flu season in California was considered moderately severe, with 78 deaths in people under 65, according to a recent department report. The state only collects data on Californians under 65, so the total flu mortality numbers are much greater, officials say.

Follow @skarlamangla on Twitter for more health news.

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