SALT LAKE CITY — Influenza activity is continuing to increase in Utah, though the illness is peaking much later than it has in previous years.
While deaths related to influenza are not tracked in the state of Utah, at least four have been made public, in Salt Lake, Duchesne and Millard counties. Others remain unconfirmed, but influenza does have a hand in an increased number of hospitalizations, which are being reported throughout the state.
Since early October, nearly 600 people have been hospitalized with "influenza-like illnesses," according to a report of influenza activity released weekly by the Utah Department of Health.
"It's just like, all of a sudden, it hits you out of nowhere," said Jeni Booth, of North Salt Lake. Booth, a diabetic, was hospitalized two days with serious influenza symptoms from H1N1. Her whole family became sick, including two sons, one of them a baby.
"One of the nurses told me that if I wouldn't have followed mom's intuition, that he could have not woken up the next morning," she said. "Whether it's the doctor or the ER or the InstaCare. Just don't wait, because you could lose your child."
Influenza viruses typically begin circulating in early October and continue to spread through May. Activity in the past three seasons has peaked in December, but this year, peak activity is happening now.
The majority of reported cases in Utah are in people age 65 and older, though the data show every age group is affected.
"The flu is unpredictable," Reed said. "Everyone should understand that seasonal influenza contributes to substantial illness each year."
Influenza kills thousands of Americans every year, despite the hundreds of millions of vaccinations that are given, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency recently reported a 60 percent efficacy for this year's vaccine, making it an effective tool for prevention, said Gregg Reed, an influenza surveillance epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
"The influenza vaccine appears to be a good match and a good way to prevent the flu," he said. The predominant strains — H1N1 and influenza B — are both included in this year's vaccine.
"We do encourage the public, if they haven't already been vaccinated, to do so," Reed said, adding that regular and proper hand washing, covering coughing and staying home when ill will also help curtail the spread of influenza.
Dr. Daniel Chappell, a family practice physician in North Salt Lake, said the most at-risk population includes the elderly and people with immune disorders and other health issues, as well as pregnant women, newly delivered mothers and small children.
He encourages such people to get treatment early if they experience symptoms like a sudden-onset high fever, coughing and body aches and pains.
"When they look really sick, they're not doing well," Chappell said. "It's not just the typical cold symptoms."
Utah may not have seen the number of cases at this point as in years past, but he said, "influenza continues to be very active and hospitalizations continue to increase."
Health departments, doctor's offices and pharmacies throughout the state still offer the vaccine. The Salt Lake County Health Department will give free shots to anyone uninsured and over age 3 on Saturday, March 12, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Rancho Market, 2470 S. Redwood Road in West Valley City.
Contributing: Ladd Egan