Flu deaths continue to rise in Minnesota

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State health officials say three more children have died of complications of the flu, bringing the number of Minnesota children who have died of influenza this season to four.

The number of Minnesotans hospitalized with flu symptoms has topped 4,200. That’s the highest number since the Minnesota Department of Health began tracking flu hospitalizations in 2008.

Preliminary figures released Thursday suggest this year’s flu vaccine is 36 percent effective overall, and only 25 percent effective against this season’s most dominant strain, Type A H3N2.

While the flu epidemic appeared to be easy a couple weeks ago, some spikes in new cases have been reported. It is unknown how long the flu outbreak will last, but as the winter weather continues to force people to congregate inside, attending sporting events, meetings, and socializing in public places, the chances for the spread of the flu remain high.

“We have now officially surpassed what was to date our most severe year in 2014-2015 and have surpassed that this season,” Minnesota Department of Health epidemiologist Karen Martin said.

“Influenza has been very active in our communities this year,” Gloria Tobias, Disease Prevention & Control Coordinator for Countryside Public Health, said. Countryside is based in Benson and serves Swift, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle and Big Stone counties.

“Local clinics report seeing an increased number of patients with the influenza each week for several weeks now,” she said.

Hospitalizations are the highest they’ve been in the U.S. since the CDC started a new way of measuring them in 2010. Ten more children have been reported to have died from flu nationally, bringing the total for this season to 63 thus far, Tobias said.

“Countryside Public Health, your county emergency manager, and medical providers ask that you help prevent the spread of influenza in our communities,” she said. You can do this by:

  • Getting vaccinated if you haven’t already done so. People who have had the flu once can get sick again from a second strain.
  • Stay home if you are sick and especially if you have been diagnosed with influenza.  DO NOT return to work, school or other activities until you are fever free for 24 hours, without fever reducing medication and are feeling better.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your sleeve if a tissue is not available.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or with hand gel.
  • Do not share drinking cups, straws, lipstick, Chapstick etc.  This includes those on sports teams-be sure to use your own water bottle or Chapstick.
  • Clean commonly touched surfaces often: door knobs, refrigerator handles, phones, water facets, keyboards, mouse etc.

For those at high risk of complications from the flu (people 65 years and older, young children, especially those under 2 years of age, pregnant women, and those with chronic health conditions-asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer) please consult your medical provider if you become ill or are exposed to someone with the flu, Tobias urged.

“Three out of four kids who’ve died this year were not vaccinated,” Anne Schuchat, MD, the CDC’s acting director Schuchat said. This week, there are 22 more pediatric deaths, bringing the season’s total to 84. Five of the pediatric deaths were attributed to influenza B infection, while the remaining 17 were linked to influenza A. In the U.S., it is estimated that 56,000 people have now died from the flu.

MDH’s Martin says the flu outbreak may have peaked a couple weeks ago with statewide numbers of reported hospitalizations dropping.  “We’re certainly hoping so,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s a blip, but it does look like it’s starting to go down,” she told Minnesota Public Radio.

The severity of this year’s flu season once again highlights problems with the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. Most vaccines made in the U.S. are still grown in chicken eggs, like they were during WWII, MPR’s John Enger writes.

According to Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, H3N2 flu vaccines have a habit of mutating slightly in the chicken eggs. By the time the vaccine is injected into people, he says it’s not all that effective.

Earlier this week U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar called for more funding and research on better flu vaccines. That’s something Osterholm has urged for years.

“What’s desperately needed right now is not just increased funding,” he said. “We also need global coordination in doing the research. We can’t just put money out there and hope that we’ll do something better.”

Public health officials say the current flu vaccine is still a vital tool in combating flu. Even if it is less effective against the H3N2 virus this year, they argue it may offer better protection against other strains of flu that are also circulating.

For more information or to schedule a flu vaccination, contact your medical provider or Countryside Public Health at 320-843-4546.


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