It may be no surprise to snifflers stuck in doctor’s office waiting rooms: The 2013-2014 influenza season appears to be picking up steam earlier than most flu seasons.
On Friday, state and Los Angeles County health officials reported “sharp increases” in influenza activity, including illnesses and deaths.
“The number of confirmed fatalities is rising rapidly and exceeds what is expected this time of year,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez, of the California Department of Public Health in Sacramento.
The new data emerged amid concerns that this year’s flu — predominated by the H1N1 “swine flu” strain estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world in 2009 and 2010 — was striking young, healthy Californians particularly hard.
In a phone call with reporters, Chavez confirmed seven deaths from influenza since September, adding that his agency is investigating another 28 recent deaths identified by county health departments. They could be added to the list of fatalities in as soon as a week, he said.
In Los Angeles County, Department of Public Health epidemiologists on Friday reported 575 confirmed flu cases so far this season, 222 of which were documented in the week from Dec. 29 through Jan. 4.
Six people are believed to have died from influenza in the county. The Department of Public Health reported that all were adults, but did not provide victims’ ages.
In some Los Angeles-area hospitals, doctors said they had noticed a spike in patients showing up with flu symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, extreme fatigue and fever.
Emergency department attending physician Dr. Greg Moran, of Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar, said Thursday that his hospital’s ER had been “getting hammered” by crowds of patients, some seriously ill.
Dr. Rekha Murthy, hospital epidemiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said that she too had noted an uptick in flu cases, with numbers rising from less than 10 confirmed cases per week through most of December to more than 30 per week in the first week of January.
But some area physicians said the influx hadn’t yet become overwhelming.
“We haven’t really gotten hit yet,” said Dr. Mark Dechter, of Healthcare Partners in West Hills, where the waiting room was mostly empty on Friday.
He said the most common ailment he was seeing in patients these days was a stomach bug that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea.
Dechter said he was concerned, however, by the reports of severe illnesses in younger, otherwise robust people.
Usually, the flu is most deadly among very young children or the elderly, or in people with underlying medical problems or compromised immunity.
But H1N1 impacts young, healthy adults more severely than most forms of the flu, Chavez said Friday.
Chavez did not provide ages of the seven people confirmed by the state to have died from the flu, but several counties in the Bay Area have reported deaths in previously healthy patients younger than 50.
Riverside County’s first influenza-related death of the season, also confirmed Friday, was a 30-year-old man from the Coachella Valley who tested positive for swine flu.
One positive this year, Chavez said, is that the current influenza vaccine is a “100% match with the strains circulating,” including H1N1, and that there “is plenty of vaccine available.”
Of the state’s seven confirmed deaths, two were known to have occurred in people who had not received a flu vaccine. The state said it did not know whether the other five patients had been immunized.
Dr. Soniya Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at UCLA, said the inclusion of swine flu in this year’s injection and nasal spray vaccines should help prevent the “scary” scenario from 2009.
“Swine flu had people really panicked then,” she said. “I think it was because it was a newer strain — something most people hadn’t been exposed to.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone six months of age or older receive a flu vaccine each year. Getting the immunization does not guarantee that a person won’t fall ill, but it does usually prevent symptoms from becoming severe in those who do, Gandhi said.
“It is by far the best protection,” she said.
Dr. Oliver Brooks, associate medical director of Watts Healthcare Corp. and chairman of Immunize L.A. Families, said that many of his patients rejected flu immunizations because they considered influenza a mild illness that they didn’t need to fear, or because they feared getting a flu shot would make them sick.
“The flu vaccine does not cause the flu,” he said.
Typically, it takes about 10 days following immunization for the body to build up resistance to the virus, Brooks said.
The early season “is an alert for us,” said Murthy, of Cedars-Sinai. “We want to heighten awareness. It’s not too late to get the vaccine. There’s still time, and it will still be effective.”
Just because the season was beginning early, she added, did not necessarily mean it would turn out to be unusually harsh.
During 2012-2013, a “moderately severe” influenza season for Los Angeles County, 70 adults and 8 children died as a result of flu infection, according to the county public health department.