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Kids first: Flu bug is circulating through California schools

Adrian Alexander Gaonzalez, 5, braces himself as he gets a flu shot during a vaccination clinic sponsored by the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency at the El Rematito Crows Landing Flea Market in Modesto in 2014.
Adrian Alexander Gaonzalez, 5, braces himself as he gets a flu shot during a vaccination clinic sponsored by the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency at the El Rematito Crows Landing Flea Market in Modesto in 2014. Modesto Bee file

Give grandma a hug – not the flu – this holiday season.

Doctors say schoolchildren are beginning to show up at clinics and hospitals with the telltale signs of influenza – cough, fever, body aches.

“The virus is starting to percolate through the schools,” said Randy Bergen, a pediatric infectious disease specialist for Kaiser Permanente Northern California.

So far, influenza activity has been sporadic – 7 percent to 9 percent of Kaiser viral specimens sent for testing have come back positive for influenza A, one of the virus strains. Fresno has had some patients, Bergen said.

Almost exclusively, the sick have been children ages 5 to 18, he said.

Flu season often begins with children and spreads to adults. That makes it important for children to be vaccinated to prevent the spread of the respiratory virus. And this year, there is no alternative to the flu shot for tiny tots. The nasal spray, which has been popular for children, was found to be ineffective against influenza last flu season.

Kaiser Permanente Northern California, which includes Fresno, had used about 60,000 to 100,000 doses of FluMist nasal spray for children. Parents and children aren’t happy about a needle sting this year, but Bergen said Kaiser hasn’t noticed a drop in immunizations. “We’re vaccinating about the same percentage of children in those age groups as we did last year.”

Dr. Janae Barker, a hospitalist at Valley Children’s Hospital, gets a flu shot every year and has two children and a husband she makes sure are protected, too. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends anyone 6 months and older be immunized for influenza.

“My 4-year-old is not happy with me,” Barker said, chuckling. Her 1-year-old daughter got two shots – children that young get one dose of vaccine, followed a month later by a second dose.

Barker said vaccines protect more than the people who get the flu shots. For example, babies who are too young to be immunized can catch the flu. “We should vaccinate to protect those who cannot be protected yet.”

It’s not too late to get a flu shot, but the sooner the better. It takes about two weeks for the influenza vaccine to provide immunity, and coming holiday gatherings are great breeding grounds for the flu bug.

Dr. Ken Bird, health officer for Fresno County, said frequent hand-washing is another must during flu season to help prevent the spread of the virus. And it’s best to sneeze into tissues or the crook of the elbow, he said.

The flu season appears to be off to a slow start, which has been the pattern in the past couple of years. But every year, influenza makes children and adults miserable before it drifts away.

“It’s a tough virus. It likes us,” Bird said.

As of Wednesday, there had not been any influenza-related hospitalizations of people younger than 65 in Fresno County. Hospitals are not required to report flu patients who are older than 65. To date this flu season, California has had nine confirmed influenza-associated admissions to hospital intensive care units, Bird said. There have not been any confirmed deaths.

Last flu season, Fresno County had eight flu-related hospitalizations and five deaths.

At Kaiser, where Bergen is the clinical lead for the flu vaccine program, the virus activity is being closely watched.

“It’s just kind of trickling through the communities right now, “ he said.

It’s difficult to know how quickly the flu virus will spread, but Bergen knows this: “At some point, it will.”

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter

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