This month, many Clark County residents received a Christmas gift they didn't want: the seasonal flu.
Influenza is already circulating in Clark County, making its appearance weeks -- or, in some cases, months -- earlier than normal, said Marni Storey, deputy director of Clark County Public Health.
Typically, the flu season begins in late January or February and runs through early spring. Some years, flu transmission doesn't pick up in Clark County until March. Last year, local flu cases spiked in March and April.
This year, though, health officials noticed higher influenza levels in early December.
"We are seeing an elevation earlier than usual," Storey said. "It's not really anything abnormal, though, and the numbers aren't at epidemic proportions."
Despite the elevated flu levels, Clark County schools, childcare centers, assisted living centers and nursing homes haven't reported any influenza outbreaks, Storey said.
The flu is making its appearance across America.
Flu activity is considered "widespread" in more than half the country, including much of the East Coast and Midwest. In other areas of the Midwest and in Colorado, Washington and Idaho, flu activity is considered "regional," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Thursday, the Washington State Department of Health reported three flu-related deaths in the state this season. None of the deaths occurred in Clark County.
A Pierce County boy younger than 12 was the state's first reported death linked to the flu. Two King County residents -- a man in his 80s and a woman in
her 70s -- also died earlier this month, according to the state health department.
The deaths and elevated flu activity highlight the importance of flu shots, Storey said. The flu strain circulating in Clark County -- the H3N2 strain of influenza A -- is well-matched to the seasonal vaccine, she said.
"This is a really good time to get a vaccination," Storey said, "because it takes a couple weeks before it fully protects you."
The vaccine should protect people throughout the flu season. Children younger than 9, however, may need two doses of the vaccine about four weeks apart for full protection, Storey said.
In addition to the vaccine, people can prevent flu transmission by washing their hands often, covering their coughs and staying home when they're ill, Storey said.