The 1998-99 flu season isn't apt to be worse than any other. But it is likely to arrive earlier.

That's the prediction from the Utah Department of Health, which is also telling people who think they may have whooping cough to get antibiotics if they are around small children.The good news for those who are most susceptible to flu is that public clinics are beginning to receive the inactive vaccine designed to prevent influenza. The bad news is an early season could mean the protective power of the flu shot could wane later in the season if the flu hangs around or is late.

Predictions of an early flu season are based on an outbreak in Alaska and unconfirmed reports of the illness in Texas. People who are over 65 and anyone with chronic respiratory disease, bronchitis, asthma, emphysema, kidney disease, diabetes, severe anemia and cardiovascular disease should get a shot, said Rick Crankshaw, director of the immunization program for the Department of Health.

This year officials are adding pregnant women in their second or third trimester to the list of those who should be immunized against in-fluenza.

The vaccination is not readily available across the valley yet, Crankshaw said. So far, it's being shipped on a prioritized basis and the high-risk-for-flu groups are being targeted because influenza can kill people and, in fact, two deaths have been associated with the outbreak in Alaska.

Martin said the Health Department is trying to get rid of the outbreak of whooping cough before flu season starts.

Babies who are current on their immunizations are vaccinated against pertussis, also called whooping cough because of the whooping sound the cough can produce. Adults generally aren't, because the older you get the more dangerous the vaccine is. But symptoms in adults can be so mild that people may not realize it's a bacterial illness, rather than a slight cold, according to department spokesman Ross Martin.

Small children, however, can be in real trouble with the illness, and deaths have occurred. So people who are around small children "shouldn't be afraid to get antibiotics prophylactically," Martin said, especially since pertussis can be hard to diagnose without having blood drawn.

In the early stages, pertussis is like a cold, with sneezing, low-grade fever and/or coughing. That goes on for a week or two, then worsens. That's when children develop the whooping sound, Martin said. Left untreated, adults "get over it eventually." But children are susceptible to secondary diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis. While death is rare, pertussis has claimed the lives of children younger than age 1.