Pneumonia, an expected complication of influenza, has claimed the lives of several Utahns this week during the state's worst flu epidemic in several years.

The Utah Department of Health is also investigating several cases of Reye's syndrome in children who have been ill with one of three different influenza strains now infecting citizens."There are always increased deaths due to pneumonia during influenza outbreaks. And the department is receiving more reports of pneumonia cases and deaths," state epidemiologist Craig Nichols said Friday.

Christmas cheer this year was dampened by the outbreak of Type B influenza. During the past three weeks, the bug has spread statewide.

According to the department's surveillance of school absenteeism rates, Nichols said, the disease continues to have a strong hold on students and teachers.

Elevated absenteeism has been reported in Piute, Washington, Box Elder, Davis, Utah and San Juan counties. Outbreaks are reported in other parts of the state as well.

Businesses haven't been immune.

Nichols said some Salt Lake companies have reported 10 to 25 percent absenteeism in the past couple of weeks.

"It would not be unusual for 10 to 20 percent of the population to have at least one of the strains," he said. "It could be higher."

In addition to influenza B, the health department has identified parainfluenza and two different types of influenza A - influenza A (H3N2), which is similar to A/Sichuan strain, and influenza A (H1N1), similar to the A/Taiwan strain.

According to Nichols, the good news is that the flu vaccine this year contained protection against A/Taiwan, A/Sichuan and B Victoria.

"We don't have a typing on the B but are assuming it is similar to the B Victoria," he said. "This means that the vaccine should provide protection against all types."

The bad news is that the shot is most effective if obtained four weeks before the person is exposed to the virus. Now is too late.

The symptoms for all three strains are similar - sudden onset of fever, headache, chills, muscle aches and fatigue.

"With Type B influenza, children seem to complain more about stomach upset and pain in the legs," Nichols said. "Reye's syndrome (inflammation of the liver and brain) is also a typical complication during influenza and can occur even if a child has not had aspirin.

The best prescription for relief is bed rest, plenty of fluids and medications to control fevers and muscle aches.

Parents, Nichols said, should not give children aspirin or aspirin-containing products, which increase the chance of Reye's syndrome. "Read the labels. You will be surprised at the number of products that do contain aspirin."

If your child develops a fever with severe vomiting, has trouble concentrating, demonstrates signs of nervous-system disorder or loss of consciousness, take him/her to a physician immediately.

Adults with chest pains and signs of pneumonia should also seek medical assistance, he said.

"Influenza is misunderstood," the specialist said. "It still is a very serious illness - especially in terms of large economic costs from lost time from work and school."

Nichols predicts that Utahns will be bearing those costs for some time to come. The flu is apt to be infecting residents for at least another month.