This year’s widespread strain of the flu continues to claim lives in South Carolina as a new death was reported this week by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Flu cases

Laboratory- confirmed flu:Jan. 6-12Charleston: 24Beaufort: 17Kershaw: 7Sept. 30 to Jan 12Charleston: 176 Aiken: 85Beaufort: 83Dorchester: 35Positive rapid flu test:Jan. 6-12Charleston: 423Greenville: 384Horry: 205Statewide: 3,009Sept. 30 to Jan. 12Statewide: 35,830Source: DHEC

The latest fatality, an elderly Sumter County resident, raised the death toll to 23.

The Charleston area leads the state in the number of people with confirmed influenza. One death has occurred here, a 73-year-old James Island woman.

Nationwide, 90 percent of flu-related deaths have occurred in people ages 65 and older, said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This year, we are seeing a particularly severe season for the elderly,” Frieden said Friday in a media conference call.

The first line of defense against flu is vaccination. When symptoms appear, treatment with the prescription drugs Tamiflu or Relenza has proven effective in reducing symptoms, hospitalizations and deaths. The antiviral medicines have cut flu fatalities by as much as 75 percent, he said.

In South Carolina, all but one of the flu deaths have occurred in people ages 50 and older, said Jim Beasley, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Statewide, visits to clinics and emergency rooms remain well above levels seen this time last year. For the week ending Jan. 12, more than 2,000 people were positive for the rapid flu test compared with 48 for the same time last year. The top three counties for rapid flu test positive people were Charleston, 423; Greenville, 384; and Horry, 205.

“We continue to regularly see influenza in both adult and pediatric patients. Most cases continue to occur among those aged 18 to 64 years,” said Dr. Cassandra Salgado, associate professor of medicine and infectious diseases program director at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Although the number of influenza patients remains high compared to last season, the Medical University says it has seen a recent drop in people sick with the flu.

For the week ending Jan. 12, MUSC treated 30 cases of influenza compared with 55 the week before. The number of patients requiring hospitalization dropped to 12 from 24 the previous week, Salgado said.

There are two ways to test for the flu. One is the rapid flu test that takes about 15 minutes. The other is a more sophisticated lab test. From Sept. 30 through Jan. 12, a total of 176 people in Charleston County had a positive lab test for the flu, the highest number statewide.

For the week ending Jan. 12, there were 24 new lab-confirmed flu cases in Charleston County out of 61 reported statewide. Berkeley County reported two cases, and Dorchester County three cases.

Only about 35 percent of people get a flu vaccine, which the CDC says has proven 62 percent effective. That means a person who gets the shot is about 60 percent less likely to get flu that requires a trip to a doctor.

Although the vaccine is not perfect, it is still the best tool for preventing the flu, but it can take two weeks or more to become fully effective. Even so, the vaccine provides some protection in the meantime. The CDC recommends the annual flu vaccine starting at 6 months old. Flu season typically extends into March.

Compared with the last flu season, when only one fatality was reported, this is a bad year for influenza in South Carolina. However, 49 people died in the 2009-2010 flu year from October to June, according to DHEC.