A 9-year-old girl is the first person in Kern County to die from the flu this season, public health officials announced Friday.
The child, identified as a student in the Fruitvale School District, died Thursday, health officials said during an afternoon news conference at the Kern County Public Health Services Department. The child was considered healthy with no underlying health conditions. She had not had a flu shot and died from influenza A.
The girl was a fourth-grader at Columbia Elementary School. Her identity wasn't disclosed.
People picking up children at the school Friday afternoon were shocked.
"It does scare me that the little girl was perfectly healthy and she died of the flu," said Janie Rodriguez, 47, who was picking up her 11-year-old granddaughter.
Rodriguez said her granddaughter hasn't had a shot this year, and neither has she. "The last time I was at the doctor they offered me one, but I was sick and they don't like to give them to you when you're sick," she said.
Jennifer Kimble has two daughters ages 9 and 6. She called the girl's death unfortunate, but refuses to have her own girls inoculated.
"I don't believe in (flu shots)," she said. "I just don't believe in injecting your body with harmful things."
Doctors say injected flu vaccines are harmless because they contain a dead virus that can't infect you, but they do sometimes cause side effects that can include mild flu-like symptoms.
Public health officials urge the public to get a flu shot, and insist it isn't too late to do so this year. There is still vaccine available locally. Kern's health department is offering flu vaccines from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the health department, 1800 Mt. Vernon Ave. The vaccine costs $9.
People who answered the door Friday evening at a home believed to be where the girl lived said they had no comment and closed the door. They had tissues in their hands.
School district officials are trying to get the word out about the death. They sent a letter home to parents Thursday to say a student had died.
"We express our sincere condolences to the child's family and to the Columbia School community," Superintendent Mary Westendorf's letter said.
At Friday's news conference, Westendorf noted that a district crisis team visited the school Friday to meet with children in the girl's classroom and others. Counselors are also to be available on campus Monday.
County Health Officer Dr. Claudia Jonah said deaths of otherwise healthy people from influenza are "unusual but not rare."
She, too, wrote a letter to Fruitvale parents. In it, she said "the vast majority of flu cases have mild or moderate illness, and individuals recover. Tragically, in this case, the child did not recover."
Jonah said health officials expect there will be more flu deaths in the country, and possibly in Kern County, too.
She noted the best ways to prevent the spread of flu are:
* Cover your cough.
* Clean your hands.
* Confine yourself at home when you are sick.
Jonah urged people to get a flu vaccine if they haven't already done so. She explained that it takes at least two weeks for the vaccine to protect against the virus, so it's a good idea to get a vaccine as soon as possible.
Donna Higgins, 65, who was walking her dog in front of Columbia Friday, hasn't been inoculated regularly in the past, but got a shot this year and now is glad she did.
"Because of my age and the public service messages, I just thought it was time," she said. "I haven't had any ill effects."
Higgins said she didn't know a young, healthy person could die of the flu, "especially a child. Usually when you hear about someone dying of the flu, you expect it's someone in their 60s or 70s."
New government figures show that flu cases seem to be leveling off nationwide. Flu activity is declining in most regions although still rising in the West.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hospitalizations and deaths spiked again last week, especially among the elderly. The CDC says quick treatment with antiviral medicines is important, in particular for the very young or old. The season's first flu case resistant to treatment with Tamiflu was reported Friday.
Eight more children have died from the flu, bringing this season's total pediatric deaths to 37. About 100 children die in an average flu season.
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.