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California Flu Outbreak Comes Early

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Nov. 26--That worrisome surge of influenza cases reported earlier this month was no fluke: This year's flu season is hitting Northern California fast and hard.

Health care giant Kaiser Permanente, which conducts flu surveillance for the state health department, reports at least 171 patients in its Northern California region testing positive for the influenza virus in the week ending Nov. 22. At this time last year, doctors had reported only one case of the flu in Northern California, said Dr. Roger Baxter, a Kaiser Permanente infectious disease consultant who oversees Kaiser's flu vaccine program in Northern California.

"It's remarkable how high and rapidly the number of cases is going up and how early in the season it is," Baxter said, noting that only 18 cases had been documented in Northern California as of Nov. 8.

Most of the cases seen by Kaiser are in school-age children, with the Sacramento area being hard hit, Baxter said. But doctors have reported flu cases at Kaiser hospitals and doctors offices in San Jose, South San Francisco, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Pleasanton and Hayward, he said.

Around the state, flu cases appear to be clustered in the Central Valley, with outbreaks in the Fresno and Sacramento area, said Dr. Robert Schechter, an epidemiologist with the immunization branch of the California Department of Health Services. In addition to the Kaiser surveillance, the state agency tests specimens for flu virus and monitors pharmacy prescriptions and hospitalizations for flu-like illnesses to track influenza cases each year.

Baxter said some of the flu strains found at Kaiser are known as Fujian A, a variant of the Panama A strain contained in this year's flu vaccine. That means that the vaccine will be only partially effective against that type of flu, he said.

"On the other hand, it's the only thing we've got," Baxter said, noting that vaccination can still reduce the severity of flu.

Influenza kills 36,000 Americans each year, more than 90 percent of them age 65 or older, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC advises flu vaccination for people age 50 and older, patients with chronic diseases such as asthma, and women who will be at least three months pregnant during flu season. This year, a CDC advisory committee also recommended flu shots for all 6 million healthy American babies from 6 to 23 months old, although that recommendation won't become official until next fall.


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(c) 2003, San Jose Mercury News, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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