It's not too late to get a flu shot this season -- and that could prevent serious illness as more people in the state come down with the virus, health officials said.
The state Department of Health on Thursday said three people have died of flu this season, including a child in Pierce County and two adults in King County.
"Any death from a preventable illness is upsetting, and it's especially heartbreaking when it's a child," Health Secretary Mary Selecky said in a statement. "These deaths are a somber reminder that flu is serious and makes thousands sick in our state each year. With flu season picking up, it's important to remember that we can protect ourselves and our loved ones with a flu shot."
The flu vaccine is available at many pharmacies and doctors' offices, and at the Benton Franklin Health District by appointment. Call the district at 460-4200 to schedule.
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The flu vaccine is provided free for children up to age 18, but health care providers may charge for an office visit or an administration fee to give the shot. People who can't afford the fee can ask for it to be waived.
A flu shot also might be covered by health insurance.
In addition to getting vaccinated, the spread of flu can be prevented by frequent hand-washing, covering a cough or sneeze, and staying home from school or work when sick.
Influenza is a viral respiratory illness with symptoms that include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue.
The virus spreads through droplets that are transmitted when sick people cough, sneeze or talk. Droplets can land on other people or on surfaces or objects that people touch, the Department of Health said.
While most people recover in a few days and need no more treatment than plenty of rest and fluids, flu can be dangerous -- or even deadly -- for young children, seniors and people with chronic illnesses that weaken their immune systems.
The three Washington deaths this year were a child under age 12, a man in his 80s and a woman in her 70s, the Department of Health said. Thousands of people die in the U.S. each year from influenza.
There have been no flu deaths this season in Benton or Franklin counties, and bicounty Health Officer Dr. Amy Person would like to keep it that way rather than see a repeat of last year's two local deaths from influenza.
"There's still time for people to get a shot," Person said. "We have plenty of vaccine."
Person didn't have statistics on how many flu cases have been seen so far in the Tri-Cities this season because flu only is reported to health agencies when there's a death or an unusual strain, such as the H1N1 "swine flu" epidemic in 2009.
But Person has heard of an increasing number of people walking into local emergency rooms and clinics with flu-like symptoms.
"We are seeing some increase in flu activity," she said.
The most common form of flu right now is Influenza A, but there also are some Influenza B cases in the area, Person said.
Lisa Teske, a spokeswoman for Kennewick General Hospital, said the urgent care centers operated by the hospital are seeing between four and six patients per day test positive for influenza.
"There's definitely an uptick this week," she said.