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Flu season off to a slow start in San Mateo County

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Reports of seasonal flu are way down so far this fall compared to last year, though local health officials say residents should still get vaccinated before the peak flu season hits in the next few weeks.

In the first five weeks of flu season, which officially started Oct. 9, two cases of influenza infection have been confirmed in San Mateo County based on tests of people who were hospitalized or needed antiviral medication, health officials said Friday.

By contrast, the county had already confirmed 323 cases of the flu by the same time last year — many of those swine flu cases.

Similarly, San Francisco health officials are seeing “very little flu activity,” San Francisco Health Department spokeswoman Eileen Shields said, though the department does not track nonserious flu cases.

The quiet beginning to the 2010 flu season has been a contrast to last year, when a novel H1N1 swine flu pandemic swept across the globe. In San Mateo County, complications from swine flu caused about 100 hospitalizations and 10 deaths.

Health officials are hoping to avoid widespread H1N1 infections this year by adding protection against swine flu into the typical seasonal flu vaccine for the first time, and they are encouraging anyone over 6 months of age to get the shot.

“We’d like to see people continue to stay healthy and get a flu shot,” Shields said.

Jan Ogar, clinical services manager for San Mateo County, said it’s possible more people are getting vaccinated or that the strains this year are similar to prior years, providing people with some immunity. “It’s really hard to pin down any single cause.”

But officials warn that the worst of the flu season typically starts in late December and can extend into March. The virus is most threatening to young children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.

“Even though it’s low now, we have no idea what will happen in February and March,” Ogar said.

sbishop@sfexaminer.com