BOISE — Last flu season was nasty.
There were 101 flu-related deaths in Idaho — quadruple the number of a typical year and the highest since officials began keeping records in 1997, according to state health officials.
Nationwide, more than 900,000 people were hospitalized and 80,000 people died, federal health data show.
“The last two years definitely were more severe influenza seasons,” said Randi Pedersen, influenza surveillance coordinator for Idaho. “It highlights for a lot of people that flu certainly can be serious, and it can even be deadly. Our message is the best prevention is the flu vaccine. The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends you get it by the end of October.”
Flu is a respiratory illness. Symptoms may include fever, cough, chills, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, muscle aches, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.
It’s not too late to get vaccinated now. Idaho’s seasonal flu peaks vary, but there was a surge in January and February last year. So far this season, Idaho has had two flu deaths, both adults. The activity level is “regional.”
One good sign: More people in the country have been vaccinated this year than were at the same time last year. Forty-five percent of children and adults were vaccinated by mid-November, up 6 to 7 percent over last year, Time.com reported.
There are other reasons to be optimistic about this season.
The dominant strain last season was an H3N2, which is deadlier than other flu strains, The New York Times reported. So far this year, the dominant strain seems to be H1N1, “which tends to produce somewhat milder infections,” an infectious disease specialist told Healthline.com.
“Flu is really unpredictable,” Pedersen said. “It seems to be a pretty mild season so far. But who knows what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks or the months ahead.”
None of last year’s flu deaths in Idaho were children, but there were 185 pediatric deaths in other parts of the country, CDC data shows. Idaho’s panhandle was hit particularly hard, with 37 deaths occurring there. Most were people over 50.
“It seemed to hit there early and hard,” Pedersen said. Outbreaks were reported at assisted living facilities for the elderly.
Other than get vaccinated, what can you do to avoid the flu? Wash your hands with soap and water, health officials say. Hand sanitizer that has at least 60 percent alcohol content will kill flu virus but not other bugs like E. Coli or norovirus.
“You’ve gotta rub your hands together long enough for it to totally evaporate,” Pedersen said.