One adult, one child die of flu in Santa Clara County, health officials say

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One adult younger than 65 and one child have died because of the flu in Santa Clara County, health officials announced on Tuesday, making them the first two victims of the potentially deadly virus in the county this season.

The Department of Public Health used this somber news to urge everyone six months and older to get a flu shot, especially before traveling. 

Public Health Director Dr. Sara Cody says, "I think since we've had two flu deaths, we can certainly say that the flu is here."

The adult who died had previous medical conditions, according to Cody. The child had previously been healthy but had recently traveled overseas and most likely contracted the virus outside of the United States.

During the last flu season, eight flu-related deaths and 27 cases of severe flu occurred in people younger than 65 occurred in Santa Clara County, officials said. In the United States, about 80,000 people died nationally because of the flu in 2017-2018, and 80 percent of those who died were not vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"Getting vaccinated is still the best protection," Cody said. "I get my flu shot to protect myself and others, like my elderly mother. I don't always enjoy getting my flu shot. Who does? I do it because it could be lifesaving." 

The two recent deaths came earlier in the flu season than usual. 

"What we know is we don't usually see flu deaths in September. Today we're reporting two flu deaths. Whether this indicates an early season, we don't know," she said. 

Health officials didn't say if the two Santa Clara County residents had received the flu vaccine. 

Here's what you need to know about the 2019-20 flu season.

How long does it take for the vaccine to take effect?

Roughly two weeks, Lin said. During this time, your body is developing antibodies to protect you against the virus. Lin said she and other health professionals have recommended patients receive the vaccine before the end of October, as flu season typically peaks during the cold, dry weather between December and February.

But receiving the vaccine anytime during the season is “better late than never," Lin noted.

How many strains of flu does the vaccine protect against?

Flu vaccines typically protect against three or four viruses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.

"There are many different flu viruses and they are constantly changing. The composition of U.S. flu vaccines is reviewed annually and updated as needed to match circulating flu viruses," per the federal health agency.

Looking at weather patterns and using statistics and other data, health professionals make an educated guess of which strains will be the most contagious during each flu season, Lin explained.

That said, Mirella Salvatore, an infectious disease specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian, told The New York Times last year that even when vaccines do not match circulating strains, "they seem to prevent severe disease, and studies show that unmatched vaccines can still avert millions of hospitalizations.”

This year's three-component vaccine protects against:

  • A/Brisbane/02/2018 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus
  • A/Kansas/14/2017 (H3N2)-like virus
  • B/Colorado/06/2017-like (Victoria lineage) virus

Also available are the quadrivalent, or four-component, vaccines. These vaccines "protect against a second lineage of B viruses," according to the CDC. In addition to the three viruses in the three-component vaccines, the quad vaccines also protect against the B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (Yamagata lineage) virus.

What is a common misconception about the flu vaccine?

While there are many misconceptions about the flu vaccine, “the most common one we hear is that it gives people the flu,” Lin said.

While reactions to the flu shot may include a low-grade fever or muscle aches, the vaccine cannot cause the flu virus. The shot is either made with a virus that has been “killed” or “inactivated" or made with “only a single gene from a flu virus (as opposed to the full virus) in order to produce an immune response without causing infection,” the CDC says.

How severe will this year’s flu season be?

It’s hard to predict how severe the flu season will be this year, Lin said.

That said, the flu season in Australia, in particular, can give experts an idea of how severe the flu season in the U.S. might be — as the U.S. tends to echo Australia in both severity and strains.