Local doctors and health officials are warning residents to vaccinate themselves against the flu as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported the virus as “widespread” in South Carolina.

Only three other states are reporting that many cases – Alaska, Mississippi and New York, according to the CDC.

Health officials on Monday said suspected flu cases also have jumped across five Southern states, and the primary strain circulating tends to make people sicker than other types, according to the Associated Press.

“It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC.

Dr. Gerald Gordon with Internal Medicine Associates of Aiken said he expects flu cases to rise locally.

“This year it appears the flu we are seeing is more virulent,” he said, meaning it is more severe and could be more lethal even to those with normal immune systems.

The first flu death in South Carolina came last week when the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reported the illness had claimed the life of a Barnwell child.

Since Sept. 30, there have been 1,976 confirmed flu cases in South Carolina. Of those, 1,232 cases were reported in the week ending Nov. 24, according to the latest available figures from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Higher-than-normal reports of flu also have come in from Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. An uptick like this usually doesn't happen until after Christmas, according to The Associated Press, and flu-related hospitalizations also are rising earlier than usual.

“Flu activity typically peaks in February, and it is very unusual for us to see this number of cases so early in the season,” said Dr. Linda Bell, interim state epidemiologist.

The last time a conventional flu season started this early was the winter of 2003-04, which proved to be one of the most lethal seasons in the past 35 years with more than 48,000 deaths. The dominant type of flu then is the same one seen this year.

An estimated 112 million Americans have been vaccinated so far, and the vaccine formulated for this year is well-matched to the strains of the virus seen so far, CDC officials said.

On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.

“The flu shot still remains the best preventative measure you can take to prevent influenza,” Gordon said. He said the shot takes at least seven days to be effective, though, so it will not protect those who already are ill with the flu.

An average of 226,000 hospitalizations and between 3,000 and 49,000 flu-related deaths occur annually, and, despite the toll of the flu, more than 60 percent of Americans have not taken advantage of the flu shot so far this year, the CDC reported.

Flu shots are available at many physicians' offices, health clinics and pharmacies.

The best ways to prevent the spread of flu are to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wash hands often and thoroughly and stay home when you are sick. The CDC also stresses the importance of the immunization for key groups such as pregnant women, health care workers, the young and those with weak immune systems.

Gordon also said that, despite what some believe, people do not get the flu from the inactivated flu shot.

“The attitude that the flu shot 'gave me the flu in the past and I will not get another flu shot' could be a lethal attitude,” he said.

The Associated Press and The Post and Courier of Charleson contributed to this report.

Help prevent the flu

• Get a flu vaccine each year.

• Wash your hands often with soap and water. Wash them for as long as it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice.

• Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, and then throw the tissue in the trash.

• Stay home if you are sick until you have been symptom-free without taking fever reducing medicine for 24 hours.

• Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

• Eat a healthy diet, exercise and get plenty of rest.

— Source: S.C. DHEC

Flu symptoms

• High fever

• Headache

• Extreme tiredness

• Dry cough

• Sore throat

• Runny or stuffy nose

• Muscle aches

• Occasionally, especially in children, stomach symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea

— Source: S.C. DHEC

The flu shot is available at many locations in Aiken, including:

• The Aiken County Health Department, 222 Beaufort St. NE

• All area CVS pharmacies

• Family Pharmacy, 333 Newberry St. NW and 110 Price Ave.

• All area Walgreens pharmacies

• All area Publix pharmacies

• All area Kroger pharmacies

• All area Target pharmacies

• All area Rite-Aid pharmacies

— Source: S.C. DHEC