A recent spike in Idaho influenza-related deaths is causing health officials to urge residents to take precautions to protect themselves.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reports 16 flu-related deaths this season by last week, an increase from just three reported deaths on Jan. 8. The majority of the deaths have been people older than 80.
Four of the deaths have been reported from the Panhandle region.
Niki Forbing-Orr, IDHW spokeswoman, said the agency doesn't break down the deaths by county and she didn't know when the last Panhandle death was reported.
"The flu is everywhere, and people need to take precautions and do what they can to stay well and avoid spreading the virus if they do get sick," she said. "People who are high risk (the elderly, youth, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions) shouldn't wait to seek treatment as well as antiviral medication."
Melanie Collett, Panhandle Health District spokeswoman, said more people are going to their doctor with flu symptoms and testing positive for the virus. She said more than 20 percent of the Panhandle's labs last week tested positive for influenza Type A.
"The flu season is likely far from over, so we urge people to get their flu shot and take proper precautions to avoid getting sick or spreading the illness further," Collett said Monday.
Leslie Tengelsen, deputy state epidemiologist, said there has been an average of 20 flu-related deaths in the state over the past five years, so this year looks worse than most years.
The most common influenza virus subtype circulating this season is H3N2.
"In previous seasons when H3N2 was the most common circulating subtype, there were more severe illnesses and an increased number of deaths," Forbing-Orr said.
She said the subtype was included in this year's vaccine, but the virus changed slightly in the time it took to manufacture and distribute the vaccine so the vaccine is not as effective as it could be.
"Right now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report seeing approximately a third of the H3N2 viruses in circulation as a good match to the vaccine and two-thirds H3N2 viruses in circulation being a mismatch to the current vaccine.
"The vaccine, however, is the best protection. It may not entirely prevent the flu, but it may reduce severity of the symptoms and shorten the duration of illness."
After vaccinations, antiviral medications are a second line of defense for people at risk for flu complications, Tengelsen said.
People are also encouraged to:
* Wash hands frequently with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
* Cover coughs and sneezes.
* Stay home when you are sick.
* Avoid others who are sick.