LITTLE ROCK — The current flu season in Arkansas has claimed at least 25 lives and is accounting for an unusually high percentage of doctor and hospital visits, a state health official told a legislative panel Friday. 

State Epidemiologist Dr. Dirk Haselow told the House and Senate committees on public health, welfare and labor that nearly 15 percent of visits to emergency rooms and nearly 10 percent of outpatient visits to clinics and providers in the state are currently related to the flu, which he said is markedly above normal seasonal levels.

The Arkansans who have died from the flu range from 2 months to 77 years, with two of the deaths occurring in children who had no underlying health condition, Haselow said. He told the panel that early in the season, 42 was the average age of the people who died, and now that average is 49. This is unusual because in a typical season, 80 percent to 85 percent of the deaths are among people over 65, he said.

"We are happy to report at this point we believe we have hit the peak and are starting now on the down side of the flu season," he said. "The flu season typically lasts about three months, so you have six or seven weeks on the upswing and six or seven weeks on the downswing. So we still another month and a half left."

Last year’s flu season caused 61 deaths in Arkansas. Haselow said deaths typically increase late in the season, because it takes time for the flu to do the level of damage that can become fatal, so he would not be surprised to see this season’s death toll exceed 50.

Haselow emphasized that "it’s not too late for anyone to get their flu shot. It’s effective, it’s safe and it’s certainly worthwhile."

Vaccines are still available, although by this point in the season "people might have to look for them," he said.

The flu was also the subject of this week’s column and radio address by Gov. Mike Beebe.

The governor said that last week alone, there were 777 flu-related hospital admissions in the state.

"By getting the flu shot, you are not only taking responsibility for your own health — you are also doing your part to improve public health in our state. The flu virus can spread so easily, and by not getting a vaccination, you put yourself and others at risk," Beebe said.