Flu cases rising across Oregon, Washington, Idaho; some deaths reported

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More than 120 Oregonians were hospitalized for flu-related ailments the week ending Dec. 23.

That’s up from 85 cases the week prior.

Oregon is one of 36 states nationwide reporting high levels of a flu outbreak, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.

It doesn’t help that this year’s flu vaccination has not been particularly effective.

“It’s just one of those years where the CDC is seeing that this strain of flu is only somewhat covered by the vaccine,” Jennifer Radtke, manager for infection prevention at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, told USA Today. “They’re seeing that it’s anywhere from 10 to 33 percent effective, so anytime there’s a mismatch between the vaccine and the circulating strain of the flu, you’re going to see more cases.”

Ann Thomas, a public health physician for the Oregon Health Authority, said it takes six months to grow the strains used in seasonal shots, strains that are determined months in advance.

Because of this, people who received the initial shot are not able to get another to prevent the strains showing up in current cases.

Thomas said the flu virus mutates so quickly, it’s a “roll of the dice each year.” Some mutations or subtypes, such as H3N2, are more dangerous, especially for people over the age of 65.

Last year was Oregon’s worst year on record for the number of hospitalizations, she said.

This year appears to be on the same track. As of Dec. 29, 335 cases of influenza-related hospitalizations in the Portland tri-county area alone were reported by the state for the 2017-18 season, Thomas said.

Salem Health’s Infection Prevention Manager Julie Koch said about 25 percent of patients in the region tested for flu showed positive.

Koch said they are seeing both of flu types A and B this year — protected against in this year’s shot — as well as flu A(H3), which seems to be predominant at this time.

Oregon does not collect or report adult deaths caused by flu, and it is rarely listed on death certificates.

That’s because seasonal influenza usually leads to death from other causes, including pneumonia, congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the CDC.

However, Oregon does require the reporting of pediatric deaths associated with flu, as this is a nationally notifiable disease. The state reported no influenza-associated pediatric deaths in the week ending Dec. 23 or the week before.

Washington state has reported 20 lab-confirmed influenza-related deaths for the 2017-2018 season, as of Dec. 23.

And Idaho has seen more flu-related deaths at this point in the season than at the same time in the previous seven seasons.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has received 13 reported deaths this season.

“Flu is widespread in Idaho and may be especially severe this season,” said Randi Pedersen, the state influenza surveillance coordinator in a statement.

“Unfortunately, this flu season is far from over,” Pedersen said. “Influenza activity typically peaks in Idaho in January or early February.”

The predominant strain currently circulating in Idaho is influenza A(H3), but influenza A(H1N1) and influenza B also have been detected.

Read more: Flu widespread in 36 states, CDC reports

Last flu season, 72 people were reported to have died from flu-related illnesses in Idaho, which far exceeded the annual average of 23 deaths during each season from 2009-2010 through 2015-2016. The first reported influenza-related death last season occurred in December.

Every year, influenza contributes to an estimated 36,000 deaths in the United States, along with more than 200,000 hospitalizations.

Those at high risk include children under the age of 5, adults 65 years or older, pregnant women and those with medical conditions such as asthma, heart or lung diseases, or a weakened immune system.

Read more: When should I take my sick child to school?

Experts said it isn’t too late to get vaccinated.

“Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and your family from this serious illness,” Pedersen said.

Koch from Salem Health agreed, saying, “You can get the flu shot anytime during the flu season, though the sooner you get it, the more likely you are to be covered.”

Everyone over 6 months of age is recommended to get the flu vaccine unless they have medical reasons to avoid it.

The shot takes two weeks to take effect.

Thomas, the Oregon physician, said, in addition to the shot, people should be washing their hands frequently, covering their mouths when they cough, staying home when sick and avoiding places like schools and nursing homes.

Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745 or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.

Read more: Oregon can do more to boost grad rates

*This story was published 6:29 p.m. PT Jan. 2, 2018 and updated 10:20 a.m. PT Jan. 3, 2018 on the Statesman Journal website

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