Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Kristina Nokes receives a flu shot from Scott Kendall at Rite Aid Pharmacy in Murray, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012.
Flu activity is up. Vaccine is the best tool to protect against flu. The vaccine is widely available; there are already over 120 million doses out there to be had. —Dr. Thomas Frieden

SALT LAKE CITY — Flu season has had a mild start in Utah despite the potential for an earlier and stronger flu season nationwide.

"This is the earliest regular flu season we've had in nearly a decade, since the 2003-2004 flu season," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "That was an early and severe flu year, and while flu is always unpredictable, the early nature of the cases and the specific strains we are seeing suggest this could be a bad flu year."

The H3N2 strains of the flu this year are similar to strains from the 2003-04 flu season in strength, but CDC officials said the nation is well-prepared and there are plenty of vaccines available.

"Flu activity is up. Vaccine is the best tool to protect against flu. The vaccine is widely available; there are already over 120 million doses out there to be had," Frieden said.

Dr. Stephen Devenport, a family physician at Granger Medical in Riverton, said this year's vaccine should keep the flu season from becoming like it was in 2003-04.

"At that time, though, there wasn't a close match. We actually have a 90 percent match right now with this H3N2 and so we hope we are going to do well," Devenport said.

Despite the national potential, Rebecca Ward, a health educator with the Utah Department of Health's Bureau of Epidemiology, said Utah has had few flu reports so far.

"We have not seen that severe outbreak that some of the other parts of the country are seeing right now," she said. "Our influenza activity is really considered pretty low to moderate, or even minimal. We just haven't seen a large outbreak like some of the other states have."

Ward said there are generally between 500 and 600 reported cases of the flu in Utah each year, and she said the Utah Department of Health only counts cases of the flu where the patient is hospitalized.

"We've only had 16 cases for the entire season, so our season right now does not look like some of the other states throughout the nation," she said.

Regardless of a low number of reported cases, Ward said, it is impossible to predict how a flu season will develop. She encourages everyone to take precautionary measures and get vaccinated.

"Right now while we may not see a lot of cases, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't get vaccinated," Ward said. "We want people to be aware that as the season goes by, activity can spike, and again that can be around December, so it is really important for people to still get vaccinated."

People who are at high risk — such as the elderly, children, people who work with children and pregnant women — should especially get vaccinated, she said. That also helps prevent the flu from spreading.

"It's like mother always said to wash your hands, we still advocate for people to wash their hands," she said. "That may seem like a very simple method. It would help decrease viruses and sickness if people would just wash their hands frequently and then, of course, cover your cough into your arm, elbow or use a tissue and throw it away."

Some people are afraid of getting sick because of the flu vaccine, but Devenport insists that isn't so.

"A lot of people think that when they get the flu (vaccine) they are going to come down with the actual flu afterwards, and that doesn't happen," Devenport said. "We do see a lot of colds in fall, which is also the same time we immunize so a lot of people will make the association between the two."

Ward said the rate at which students miss school is 5.4 percent right now, but it can go up if children who have the flu don’t stay home from school.

"We want to make sure that parents are aware that if your children do have influenza-like symptoms, talk to your health care provider and please keep them home from school," she said.

Devenport said the number of students missing school has recently increased.

"There's been a big increase also with the absenteeism of school already," he said. "We saw a pretty big jump in the last week or two of that."

People should also continue to exercise caution even after they have received a flu vaccine, Ward warned.

"We need to remind people that it takes about two weeks for that vaccine to provide that protection," she said. "So if you get vaccinated today and you are going somewhere tomorrow, you are not going to have that immunity."

Even though there haven't been a considerable number of flu cases yet, Ward said that is no reason not to get vaccinated.

Twitter: @FinleyJY