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California's flu season is the lightest in years

Three children died this year compared with five last year. Doctors say main peak is over but note that a second, milder wave is possible.

March 14, 2009|Rong-Gong Lin II

The flu season in California this winter is turning out to be one of the mildest in recent years.

The number of severe influenza cases resulting in deaths in children is also down. There have been three pediatric influenza-associated deaths so far this winter, with deaths reported in Riverside, Fresno and Alameda counties; in the same time period last winter, there were five pediatric deaths associated with influenza.

In Los Angeles County, data released this week showed the number of positive influenza tests declined last week compared with the previous week.

"It looks like the main peak is over. . . . It's burning its way out," said Dr. Elizabeth Bancroft, a Los Angeles County medical epidemiologist. She did not rule out a secondary surge in flu cases later this spring, but such second waves have historically been less intense than the main surge.

Historically, California's flu season peaks in January and February. Data from last week show that flu cases have begun to decline, a trend that is expected to continue through April, said Dr. Gilberto Chavez, deputy director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the California Department of Public Health.

"It has definitely been much more moderate than in past years, and . . . milder compared to last year," Chavez said.

As a result, emergency rooms have not been deluged with sick patients showing up with flu-like symptoms.

"But ironically, we're extremely busy and if we had the flu, we'd be in deep trouble," said Dr. Brian Johnston, medical director of the emergency department at White Memorial Medical Center in Boyle Heights. Johnston said his hospital has been affected by the downsizing of neighboring Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

Instead of patients with the flu, the emergency room has been busy with other sick patients, such as people showing severe symptoms of diabetes and high blood pressure.

At Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood, doctors have seen "dramatically less influenza than normal," said Dr. Larry Baraff, an emergency medicine physician.

One reason this winter's flu season might be more mild is that this year's flu shot closely matched the strains of flu virus prevalent in the general population, health officials said.

Chavez also said public health authorities have improved their ability to promote flu shots to the public, including children.

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ron.lin@latimes.com

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