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The current flu outbreak is potentially the worst for young U.S. children in several years, some experts say, comparing it in Western states to the Hong Kong flu of 1968-69.

A government epidemiologist and other disease doctors predict flu deaths among babies and toddlers will exceed the estimated 92 who die in an average flu year.

"We would expect that number would be higher in a season like this. It would be more than 92," said Dr. William Thompson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The question is how high."

An average of 8,400 healthy children between 6 months and 24 months are hospitalized with the flu each year. The virus and its complications are the sixth-leading killer of children age 4 and under.

With the flu now widespread across half the country, large hospitals have already admitted hundreds of young patients, including a few critically ill in intensive care. Nearly all eventually get better, but the deaths have been particularly worrisome.

"What I am hearing anecdotally is this is a very, very bad season for children," said Dr. Walt Orenstein, director of the National Immunization Program at the CDC.

CDC officials cautioned they will not know for sure until the season is over whether it caused more illness or death than usual in children.

So far, the CDC has learned of about three dozen deaths in children and teenagers. It is unclear how that figure compares to other years because the agency doesn't track flu cases.

For the first season in four winters, the dominant flu strain is a so-called H3N2 virus, which is the most dangerous of the three main varieties. For that reason alone, experts say, the number of pediatric deaths will be higher than average.

The CDC estimates in an average year, about 36,000 people die of the flu.

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©2003 The Modesto Bee. All Rights Reserved.

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