If influenza hospitalizations and deaths continue on their current trajectory, this flu season could turn out to be more severe than last year's, according to Amy Cornell, communications manager for the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
As of Jan. 15, 18 people in the Bay Area have died from the flu this season, according to public health officials. Four of those people -- all under the age of 65 -- were residents of Santa Clara County.
That's half of the total number of deaths the county saw last year, and there are still about two months to go in the current season. The peak of flu season is between January and March, according to health officials.
Last year, eight people under the age of 65 died from the flu in Santa Clara County, Cornell said. The county has had 13 severe cases of flu this season, meaning 13 people under the age of 65 have been hospitalized because of the flu or complications of the flu, she said.
"We are seeing more severe cases earlier this year," Cornell said.
The county does not keep track of the victim's home cities. However, Cornell said, they do keep track of the victim's ages. Those who have died this season have been 41, 56 ,61 and 62, respectively. At least one of the victims had an underlying health issue.
"We want to let people know that it's not too late to get a flu shot," Cornell said.
Part of the reason county health officials are worried, according to Cornell, is that the H1N1 strain of the virus -- also known as "swine flu" -- is the "predominant strain this year."
"What we're seeing is that H1N1 is affecting normally healthy people and making them ill," Cornell said.
One of the most recent deaths -- the first in Solano County this season -- came after a 40-year-old Vallejo man was infected with H1N1 and died. In Sonoma County, a 23-year-old died from the flu earlier this season.
Cornell advised anyone who believes they have the flu to stay home and limit contact with others -- unless the symptoms become severe, in which case, people should seek medical attention.
"If people have severe symptoms and they feel very sick, it's best to get checked out by a doctor rather than not," she said.
The website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies the main flu symptoms as: fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, and vomiting and diarrhea in some people (especially children).
Many of the symptoms associated with the influenza virus are similar to symptoms associated with the common cold. However, Cornell noted, with the flu, severe cases can lead to complications, such as bronchitis, ear and sinus infections, and pneumonia. Complications from the flu can lead to death.
Cornell said her department wanted people to know that flu vaccination shots are readily available through the public health department at the Adult Immunization Clinic, located on the first floor of 967 Lenzen Ave. in San Jose. Vaccine is also available at multiple locations in Mountain View, including the free RotaCare Clinic on the El Camino Hospital campus, Palo Alto Medical Foundation's Mountain View Center, Kaiser, Safeway and various chain drug stores.
Although there have been reports of temporary shortages at various flu shot providers, overall there's a good supply of vaccine. Health officials all over the Bay Area are urging everyone 6 months and older to get vaccinated. The vaccine takes about two weeks after inoculation to be fully effective.
-- Bay City News contributed to this report.