Flu to kill 20,000 this year

Actually, the flu kills 20,000 Americans every year, County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Lundberg told the Butte County Board of Supervisors Tuesday. The question this year is whether or not we’ll have an epidemic or a pandemic. The difference is this: An epidemic is any above-normal outbreak of a virus for which most humans have some immunity. A pandemic is an outbreak of a new virus for which humans carry no antibodies.

Many scientists are currently worried a pandemic could result if the H5n1 virus, commonly known as the bird flu, mutates into a form that humans could transmit to other humans. Since the virus was discovered a few years ago, 124 humans have caught the bug from close contact with infected birds. So far there have been no cases of human-to-human transmission, but with a 50 percent fatality rate, researchers worry that if the virus mutates to become transmissible among people, it could kill millions worldwide.

In a normal flu season in Butte County, 10 to 20 percent of county residents get sick. Typically, 70-100 people, mostly the elderly or those already in poor health, will die, either from the virus itself or from pneumonia, a common complication of the flu. A pandemic, Lundberg said, could claim more than 200 lives locally.

“That’s actually good news,” Lundberg said, “in that it’s not 100 percent of the population.”

Lundberg said his department is running drills and crafting scenarios in order to prepare. One problem the county may face is a shortage of hospital beds.

“Most winters our hospitals are already running at capacity, so we are talking to them about their surge capacity,” Lundberg said.

Flu shots are already scarce, Lundberg said, with the county receiving only 6,000 out of the 9,000 doses promised by the federal government. Those shots are available for $20 each at any county-run clinic and should guard against any garden-variety flu. Flu is also treatable by antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu, but those drugs may be in short supply this year.

The flu season this year could get nasty, said county epidemiologist Linda Lewis, regardless of whether H5n1 becomes a problem.

“Every other year we have a significant epidemic and we are due for one this year, so it’s important we take precautions,” she said, adding that the world generally experiences a pandemic every 20 years or so, making the next one past due.

Lundberg urged people to get a flu shot, to wash their hands often and to stay at home if they get sick.