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Minn. facing potentially severe flu season as hospitalizations climb

ST. PAUL—With almost 1,800 flu-related hospitalizations and nearly 100 outbreaks in schools and nursing homes, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Thursday, Jan. 11, that it could potentially be a severe flu season.

The department said as the flu season, now listed in the highest category as widespread, climbs toward its peak, residents can still get flu vaccines and it's not true, despite rumors, that the vaccine isn't effective this year.

In the report Thursday, the department said flu activity is showing a continued increase across the state.

As of the week ending Jan. 6, there have been 1,765 flu-related hospitalizations, 55 outbreaks of influenza-like illness in long-term care facilities, 43 outbreaks in schools and one pediatric flu death this flu season.

Although flu hospitalizations can climb much higher, there have been two years in the past five where the number for the entire flu season was actually lower. In the 2013-2014 season, there were only 1,540 hospitalizations and almost the same exact number in the 2015-2015 season at 1,541.

However, they can climb much higher too, as for example in 2014-2015 there were 4,138 hospitalizations.

"Now is the time to get your flu vaccine if you have not already," said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious disease at the department. Even otherwise-healthy people can become very sick from flu, and we still have a lot of flu season left. Flu can easily circulate through April and beyond."

The main flu strain circulating so far this season in Minnesota and the U.S. is influenza A H3N2. Flu seasons with H3N2 as the dominant strain have been associated with more hospitalizations and deaths in adults 65 years and older and young children compared to other age groups.

Ehresmann said "It is very important for young children, older adults and others at high risk for complications from flu to get vaccinated. People at higher risk for flu complications include pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions, like diabetes, asthma or heart disease."

"Rumors that the flu vaccine is not effective this year are misleading," said Ehresmann. "It is too early for us to know what the flu vaccine effectiveness is for the U.S., and we can't make predictions based on what happened in other countries like Australia because it's not an equal comparison."

Ehresmann noted that even in a perfectly matched year, the vaccine will not prevent every case of flu. However, more people being vaccinated means more protection in the community, limiting the spread of the virus. Additionally, recently published studies found that people vaccinated against the flu are less likely to have serious complications that could put them in the hospital.

National early-season flu vaccination rates released in November by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that only 39 percent of people 6 months and older had received their flu vaccine. These estimates show a large portion of the population could be vulnerable to flu as activity continues to increase across the country.

The symptoms of flu, which tend to come on suddenly, can include a sore throat, coughing, fever, headache, muscle aches and fatigue. People who become severely ill with flu-like symptoms should seek medical care.

People at high risk for complications from flu should contact their health care provider right away if symptoms arise. Antiviral medications should be prescribed to all hospitalized, severely ill and high-risk patients with confirmed or suspected flu. These drugs work best when treatment begins within two days of symptoms starting but may still be helpful after that time. Both CDC and MDH have notified medical providers of the importance of prescribing antivirals during this flu season.

Flu vaccines are covered by most insurance plans. If you don't have insurance, the Minnesota Vaccines for Children program and the Uninsured and Underinsured Adult Vaccine program provide free or low-cost vaccines.

Along with vaccination, health officials remind Minnesotans to prevent the spread of flu and other illnesses by covering coughs and sneezes, staying home when feeling ill and washing hands often.

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