The flu season is off to an early and deadly start in Idaho and nationwide.

    The state Department of Health and Welfare reported Monday that three women, including one from Southeast Idaho, have died from influenza-related causes.

    The two other women were from Southwest Idaho; all three were over the age of 50. State officials are not releasing their identities.

    These are the first deaths of the 2012-13 flu season in Idaho and health officials are preparing for the worst.

    “Unfortunately, only about a third of adults and 40 percent of children have received the flu vaccine so far this season," said Dr. Kathryn Turner, who leads Idaho’s Communicable Disease Prevention Bureau. “We’d really like to see an increase in vaccinations so people have a better chance at staying healthy.”

    News of the Idaho deaths came on the same day that national experts said the flu season is off to its earliest start in nearly a decade.

    Health officials on Monday said suspected flu cases have jumped in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types. It is particularly hard on the elderly.

    “It looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

    Such an uptick in flu cases usually doesn’t happen until after Christmas. Flu-related hospitalizations are also rising earlier than usual, and there have already been two deaths in children nationwide.

    Health officials are hoping the fact this week is National Influenza Immunization Week will prompt Americans who have not been vaccinated to get their flu shot.

    The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said in a press release: “It is especially important that people at high risk for complications from the flu and anyone in close contact to those people are vaccinated. People at higher risk include infants, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, or heart disease, and people 65 and older.”

    Turner added, “This year’s flu vaccine is a great match to the circulating strains. However, it takes about two weeks before peak antibody levels are reached and the vaccine’s protection is maximized.”

    Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello reported no recent increases in flu cases when contacted by the Journal on Monday night, while Bingham Memorial Hospital in Blackfoot reported only a normal number of flu cases for this time of year.

    The CDC says Idaho is experiencing “regional” outbreaks of the flu, which is only one step down from the most severe outbreak level, known as “widespread.” Utah and Wyoming are experiencing only mild “local” flu outbreaks, while Montana is seeing sporadic cases, or nearly non-existent flu activity, according to the CDC.

    Department of Health and Welfare statistics show that about 10 to 20 Idahoans die from flu-related causes each year.

    Nationwide an average of 24,000 Americans die each year from the flu. The CDC has not yet released nationwide flu death totals for this flu season, but an Internet search revealed that several states have experienced multiple fatalities.

    The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years, with more than 48,000 deaths nationwide. The dominant type of flu back then was the same one seen this year.

    One key difference between then and now: In 2003-04, the vaccine was poorly matched to the predominant flu strain. Also, there’s more vaccine now, and vaccination rates have risen for the general public and for key groups such as pregnant women and health care workers.

    An estimated 112 million Americans have been vaccinated so far, the CDC said. Flu vaccinations are recommended for everyone 6 months or older.

    Flu usually peaks in midwinter. Symptoms can include fever, cough, runny nose, head and body aches and fatigue. Some people also suffer vomiting and diarrhea, and some develop pneumonia or other severe complications.

    Turner reiterated that a flu shot is the best way to avoid falling victim.

    She said, “With the holiday season fast approaching, we strongly urge people to be vaccinated for flu so they and their loved ones remain healthy through the season.”

Flu shots

Southeastern Idaho Public Health is providing flu vaccines for $15. For more information contact (208) 233-9080.

At a glance

This week is National Influenza Immunization Week, which is a good time to remember that the influenza virus and other respiratory illnesses usually spread person-to-person through coughing and sneezing. People are urged to:

• Cover their mouths and noses with a tissue when coughing or sneezing to prevent infecting other people.

• Avoid people who appear sick.

• Stay home from work when sick.

• Wash your hands frequently, especially after being out in the public. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth until you have washed your hands.

·• Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of liquids, eat nutritious foods and take part in physical activity to stay healthy.

For information about influenza and how to stay healthy, please visit www.cdc.gov/flu.