These deaths serve as a tragic reminder to all of us that influenza can be a serious disease for anyone. I can't stress strongly enough that everyone over the age of 6 months old should get a flu shot every year to prevent illness and to avoid passing the virus to others. —Ilene Risk, county epidemiologist
WEST VALLEY CITY — Felice Jimenez wants to be in the labor and delivery room when her first grandson is born next month, even if it means getting a shot or two in the arm.
"They tell me I need to be protected," the 33-year-old mother of eight said Thursday.
Jimenez and two of her kids got flu shots at the Ellis R. Shipp Public Health Center to keep themselves from getting sick, but also so the new baby has a lesser chance of getting infected.
The influenza season is in full swing in Utah, with the number of cases on the rise.
The Salt Lake County Health Department confirmed the season's first two deaths this week, followed with an admonition to the public to get vaccinated.
"These deaths serve as a tragic reminder to all of us that influenza can be a serious disease for anyone," said Ilene Risk, a county epidemiologist. "I can't stress strongly enough that everyone over the age of 6 months old should get a flu shot every year to prevent illness and to avoid passing the virus to others."
The two deaths occurred in adults between the ages of 35 and 64, and it is unknown whether either had other underlying health conditions, according to the health department.
"These are deaths that don't need to happen, unfortunately," Risk said. "Influenza is a significant disease, and I think we forget how severe it can be."
Flu season typically begins in late September and lasts through March and sometimes later, but the length and dates of the season are unpredictable from year to year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state saw its first confirmed case on Sept. 29, 2013. Someone under 18 was hospitalized in Utah in October, and more than 168 people have been hospitalized throughout the state from then until Dec. 21, according to the latest data available from the Utah Department of Health.
In Salt Lake County, there have been at least 150 hospitalized flu victims so far this season, with the vast majority resulting from the H1N1 virus, according to the county health department.
Of those hospitalized, as they are tracked, Risk said about one-third have no underlying medical conditions. And vaccination rates among them are "pretty dismal," she said.
The health department reports that about 17 percent of the people hospitalized with influenza this year received a flu shot prior to getting sick. Immunization rates are higher among children but still hover around 50 percent.
Vaccines are adapted each year to match the expected strains of the virus, and Risk said this year's version of the flu vaccine is pretty spot on. It includes protection against H1N1, which is the same strain of swine flu that caused a global pandemic in 2009.
H1N1 largely affected the typically healthy adult population, ages 25 to 49, at that time and is showing similar rates among the same middle-age group this year as well.
Risk said it is never too late to get vaccinated, and the number of cases being reported has yet to peak.
Tasha Vigil and her two teenage daughters are generally healthy, and they get the flu shot every year. She said it may not be true, but in addition to protecting them from getting the flu, "I think it helps them not get sick as often from other things, too."
"So many people get the flu and they get so sick. It's better just to get the shot," said Vigil, of Kearns.
Nearly 1,000 people were hospitalized with the flu last year in Utah. Of those, 34 patients died from complications of the illness, according to health department data. Most of the reported hospitalizations from influenza complications occurred during the three weeks following Christmas, and while hundreds of patients were over age 65, influenza affected every age group similarly.
Vaccination remains the most potent defense against influenza, according to health officials.
"It's a relatively small thing that reduces illness and even saves lives," Risk said.
In addition to advising people to get the flu shot or nasal mist vaccine each year, the health department encourages people to be diligent about washing their hands correctly — including using warm-to-hot water and scrubbing with soap for at least 20 seconds — and to stay home from work or school if they are sick.