Ravell Call, Deseret News
Medical assistant Cassie Macfarlane draws up influenza vaccine at MountainStar Medical Group Farmington in Farmington, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014.
Activity is ramping up. We're approaching peak levels. Don't gamble. There's no reason to. There's no reason to not get vaccinated. —Becky Ward, Utah Department of Health

SALT LAKE CITY — Influenza is widespread throughout Utah, as with much of the country, even reaching epidemic proportions in some areas.

Nationally, 15 children have died from conditions related to the flu, leading the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday to declare the virus an epidemic earlier than in previous years.

High virus activity has been reported in at least 36 states, including Utah, according to the CDC.

"It's out there. It's circulating," said Becky Ward, an educator with the Utah Department of Health, who added that it is not too late to get vaccinated.

"Activity is ramping up. We're approaching peak levels," she said. "Don't gamble. There's no reason to. There's no reason to not get vaccinated."

While experts can't predict or determine the cause of the fast-increasing number of cases in Utah, Ward said it can possibly be linked to a less-effective vaccine, though this year's vaccine is intended to protect against four strains of influenza.

One of the strains, she said, has reportedly drifted from its anticipated genetic behavior, causing more sickness than expected.

Weekly statistics reported by the health department show that the majority of positive tests for influenza this year (approximately 99.8 percent of positive tests sent to the state lab) are due to the type A, H3N2 virus, which is the strain the CDC warns is not fully protected by the vaccine.

The vaccine, however, can provide some cross-protection against the virulent strain.

"With vaccination, your body will still have greater strength to fight the strain, it just won't be an exact match," said Gregg Reed, an influenza surveillance epidemiologist with the health department in Utah. He said vaccination is never a guarantee against sickness, but is a way to help control the spread of the disease.

Through the end of last week, Utah has 491 influenza hospitalizations reported for the season this far. It is very much on par with previous years, with a peak expected sometime in early January.

Utah tracks influenza from October until May, with the majority of cases falling in the winter months.

Ward said kids are indoors more and people travel between households a lot more during the winter months, resulting in more frequent opportunities to spread sickness.

Classic signs of influenza include a rapid onset of symptoms, including a high fever, cough or body aches. Flu symptoms can be similar to that of other colds and viruses also circulating this time of the year, said Dr. Jaime Padilla, a physician assistant at FirstMed Industrial Clinic on Redwood Road.

"When it is the flu, there are hallmark signs," he said, adding that if symptoms are still new, within 48 hours, patients can be treated with an antiviral medication that will decrease the severity of symptoms and the length of the illness.

"It helps the body recover more quickly," Padilla said.

The clinic has seen more than four times the positive influenza cases that came through last year, which Padilla blames on either a stronger virus this year or decreased efficacy of the vaccine.

Nevertheless, medical staff "always encourages every single patient that comes through the doors, especially early in the season, to get the vaccine," he said. Padilla also encourages good hand-washing practices to prevent spread of the virus.

Anyone age 6 months and older can and should get the flu vaccine, Reed said, with the ultimate goal of community immunity.

"Vaccination is the No. 1 best way to prevent the spread of influenza," he said.

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