California healthcare professionals have reported more deaths this flu season than last year.
According to the California Department of Public Health’s Influenza Surveillance Program, 345 people have died from flu-related deaths between Sept. 30 and March 9, far more than the number that died in a similar time period last year.
The primary strain of this year’s flu is H1N1, more commonly known as swine flu, which is especially deadly for children and young adults. Medical practitioners said there’s been a reemergence of the much more severe H3N2 strain, which caused last year’s flu epidemic.
At Orange Coast College, caring for sick students and preventing illness falls to Kelly Daly and her staff at the Student Health Center. Funded by the student health fee and grants, the health center serves 7,500 students a year and is a vital resource for students and the community.
Daly described a robust infection prevention strategy consisting of an information campaign distributed to staff and students as well as administering a free flu vaccine.
“Because it’s a free vaccine, I can do students, I can do staff, I can do a member of the community [who] walks in,” Daly, a registered nurse and director of the health center said.
So far this year, the Student Health Center has administered 419 vaccines, up about 200 doses from two years ago. The current vaccine is 47 percent effective in the general population and about 61 percent effective in children, according to Zahn.
Even if a vaccinated person gets the flu, the symptoms will be dramatically decreased.
Disease prevention is especially important in community colleges where, unlike most four-year college and universities, attendance is tied to funding and students feel more pressure to come to class. Daly said that as a result, students are more likely to attend class while sick and potentially infect other students.
This also contributes to how quickly illnesses spread on campus. Daly urged all students and staff to stay home if they have a fever.
“I’m not so concerned about healthy people. But I’m worried about moms and babies, pregnant women and people with autoimmune disorders,” Mililani Magee, a 45-year-old psychology major said. Magee is also a two-time breast cancer survivor so she intimately understands the dangers vulnerable populations face from unvaccinated people.
While the recent rainstorms may have contributed to an overall rise in illness, it has had little to no effect on the number of flu cases according to Matthew Zahn MD, the medical director for the Division of Epidemiology and Assessment for the Orange County Health Care Agency.
“There has been a lot of study about how weather effects patterns and there has been some relationship but how it relates from year to year is hard to know,” Zahn said.
According to Zahn, the bigger risk to public health comes from rising vaccine hesitancy. In his 20-year practice, Zahn has seen some dangerous myths about vaccination take hold.
This has led to a significant decline in vaccination rates worldwide and an increase in the outbreak rates for diseases like measles and whooping cough.
Despite the proven safety of vaccines, Daly and Zahn both urge consulting with a doctor and knowing your family medical history in order to make an informed decision.
“This is what I did with my own kids is to spread them out… There’s an alternate vaccine schedule,” Daly said.
It’s not just the flu.
There have been six reported cases of the measles this year, as well as 11 confirmed cases of the whooping cough at La Cañada High School outside Pasadena in December.
On March 16, nearly 50 cases of whooping cough were confirmed at Harvard-Westlake School in Studio City. Like measles, whooping cough is a high infectious airborne pathogen which is especially dangerous to infants.
“There seems to be a myth that… vaccine hesitancy has not had a public health impact in this country. It emphatically has,” Zahn said citing the recent outbreaks. “It’s important for people to understand that not getting vaccinated has consequences.”