For the NDL

Officials with the Department for Public Health are reporting the first four flu-related deaths of the 2019-2020 flu season. Flu activity is being raised to "widespread," the highest flu activity level indicating increased flu cases or flu outbreaks in at least half of Kentucky's regions.

In addition to the four flu-related deaths, DPH officials are reporting 1,622 laboratory-confirmed flu cases in regions across the state since Aug. 4.

"We extend our condolences to the families who have suffered losses during this flu season," Dr. Angela Dearinger, commissioner of DPH, said in a news release. "These personal losses are a reminder for all of us that flu can be a serious illness, for young and old alike, and we strongly encourage people to protect themselves by getting a flu vaccination. This is especially important for children and adults at high risk for complications related to the flu. Stay at home if you have the flu or flu-like symptoms and to avoid contact with others."

Infection with the flu virus can cause fever, headache, cough, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing and body aches. Flu can be very contagious. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become fully effective, so it is very important to get the flu shot as soon as possible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends flu vaccine for all individuals six months of age and older.

The flu vaccine is especially important in light of the longest flu season the nation experienced last year. The CDC reports that more than 647,000 flu-related hospitalizations occurred and more than 61,000 people died as a result of the flu. In Kentucky, there were 196 flu-related deaths, two of which were children.

It is especially important for pregnant women to be vaccinated before or during pregnancy. Antibodies cross the placenta and provide immunity to infants up to 6 months of age, when the infant is eligible to receive their first annual dose of flu vaccine. Last season in Kentucky, there were infants less than one month old that had the flu.

"Getting the flu can be debilitating and sometimes life-threatening," added Dearinger. "Vaccination is the best tool we have to prevent the flu. It is also extremely important to take simple preventive steps to avoid the flu and other illnesses that tend to circulate at this time of year -- wash your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze and stay home when you are sick."

For more information on influenza or the availability of flu vaccine, Kentuckians should contact their primary care medical provider or local health department. Influenza information is also available online at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm.